As India celebrates the 70th anniversary of its independence, here’s a short look back at one little known aspect of those last pre-independence days – its Wild West paperbacks. I’ve written before about the Collins paperbacks published in India during the war and in the years immediately afterwards. They’re now generally very difficult to find, although I’m not sure there’s anybody other than myself searching for them. But if most of them are difficult to find, the Wild West paperbacks seem to be almost impossible.
Judging by the lists of titles in the other books I have, Collins published over 40 westerns in paperback in India in the 1940s, most of them as White Circle paperbacks and a few in their general series. There seem to have been a further 12 westerns in the series of Services Editions, printed specially for the British forces in India and SEAC, and at least three more published by Collins in what was then Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. That’s over 50 different books, that would have been printed in large quantities – I’d have thought at least 10,000 copies of each book and possibly several times as many. In total surely at least half a million books. Yet in thirty years or so of searching, I had never seen a single copy of any of them.
There are reasons of course. They were printed on poor quality paper and seen as disposable items. Many would have been sold to British expatriates or British troops in India and would not have been thought worth transporting home. The westerns may have survived less well than the crime stories and other novels, because they were more avidly read and passed around, or perhaps because they were seen as more disposable. And even if copies have survived in India, they’re inevitably difficult to track down from Britain now. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to search for them on the ground and find they’re not as rare as I think.
But this week I finally found one. It’s in appalling condition, worn and dirty with the front cover missing and the spine disintegrating. Even at £5, including postage, it was hardly a bargain. But it’s the first Indian Wild West paperback from Collins that I have ever seen. A small piece of history has been preserved.
Not a pretty sight, but possibly unique
And it follows an earlier success, just over a year ago, in finding a western paperback from Ceylon, this one in much better condition. So the search is not impossible after all. There are westerns out there waiting to be found. I’d love to hear of others.
By the time war broke out in 1939, the Collins White Circle series was well established as a serious competitor to Penguin, particularly in the area of genre fiction – crime, mystery, westerns and romantic novels. The Crime Club section of the series had published around 80 titles and the Westerns were up to 30 or more. Titles continued to be added throughout 1940 and 1941, but gradually paper rationing started to bite. Books had to meet the War Economy standard and the flow of new titles slowed to a trickle.
A paper quota was available though for the paperback Services Editions, and this was one area where Penguin had got it wrong, launching the misconceived ‘Forces Book Club’ and then withdrawing from the market. It was an opportunity for Collins to make an impression, and their product was in some ways ideal for it. Romantic fiction was not going to work, for what were then almost exclusively male armed forces, but the other categories in their White Circle series could carry straight across. Crime novels and Westerns were just what the Services wanted.
White Circle Westerns in standard format and in Services Edition
Over the period from 1943 to 1946 the Collins series of Services Editions published 164 titles, including at least 33 Westerns, and probably 36. I don’t know exactly how many because I have no idea of the titles of the books numbered c327, c328 and c330. If anyone does know, or even better has a copy of any of these books, I’d be delighted to hear from them. The other books with similar numbers are Westerns, so it seems likely that these are too, but I can’t be sure.
Certainly the series started with eight Westerns in the first sixteen titles. See my post on the early Collins Services Editions for more detail. It’s enough for now to say that those first eight Westerns have almost disappeared without trace. In over 25 years of searching for them, I have found only one in first printing and two others in reprints.
The next batch through to the end of 1944 is not much better. I have found copies of just four of the twelve books, but I do at least know the titles of the others, although not their series numbers. Any evidence of the books below in Services Editions would be welcome.
|Curran, Tex||Riding fool|
|Dawson, Peter||Time to ride|
|Ermine, Will||Watchdog of Thunder River|
|Lee, Ranger||Red shirt|
|Lee, Ranger||The silver train|
|Robertson, F. C.||Rustlers on the loose|
|Robertson, F. C.||Kingdom for a horse|
|Short, Luke||Ride the man down|
That leaves a further thirteen, possibly sixteen, Westerns published in 1945 and 1946. I have copies of seven of them, some of which I’ve seen more than once, so I suppose they’re a little more common, which is what you’d expect, but they’re still frustratingly difficult to find.
That’s true of almost all Services Editions, but Westerns do seem to be particularly rare. It’s true for the smaller number of Westerns in the Guild Books series of Services Editions as well. I’m pretty sure that the Westerns were printed in at least as large quantities as other titles, but they seem to have survived less well. I can only assume that’s because they had more use, they were read more avidly and more often, passed around more or borrowed more often from unit libraries. Services Editions were printed on poor quality paper, and often stored and read in battlefield conditions, and in hot damp climates, so they wouldn’t survive repeated use for long.
Or possibly Westerns were just seen as more disposable, and have continued to be seen in that way. When service libraries were being cleared out, were Westerns more likely to be thrown away? If they survived that clear-out and were accepted into somebody’s home, were they still more likely to end up in the bin than other types of fiction? If they got as far as a second-hand bookshop, would bookdealers have considered them worthy of a place on the shelf? Or would they have ended up in a box in a dark corner or have been consigned to a cellar to moulder and die?
Most of the Westerns in the series were written under pseudonyms, and around a third of the books came from a single author, Charles Horace Snow. He contributed books under three different names – four books as Ranger Lee, four as Gary Marshall and three as Wade Smith. Another eight books came from two brothers – four by Frederick Glidden under the name of Luke Short, and four by his brother Jonathan under the name of Peter Dawson.
I don’t think any of them are much read now. Westerns were enormously popular in wartime and in the postwar years, but interest in them seems to have gone down and down. Finding copies of these books, or even any information about them, is a race against time.
I’ve recently come across a small pamphlet by John Loder on the Collins White Circle editions published in Australia. The books themselves I’ve seen from time to time and without trying to collect them systematically, I’ve put together a small group of them over the years. I’ve never known much about them though and certainly never had any knowledge of what titles existed, or how many. So it’s great to find that somebody else has had enough interest to produce a checklist and a short history.
As I’ve found before with series that are little researched, there are more books than you might think. They’re not numbered, so there’s no easy indication of how many there might be, and most are also undated, so I wasn’t even sure when they were published. It’s no surprise that they come from the 1940s, starting around 1942, possibly even a bit earlier. But I am a bit surprised to find that there are over 100 different titles. That includes several I have copies of that are not in John Loder’s checklist, so there are probably still other unrecorded ones as well.
The stimulus for the creation of the series was probably the introduction of paper rationing in the UK and the increasing difficulty of shipping books out to Australia. At much the same time, and for the same reason, Collins started local printing of paperbacks in Canada, in India and in Ceylon, Penguin started local printing in the US, Australia, New Zealand and Egypt, and Guild Books also started an Australian series. The Australian market must have been getting quite crowded.
All three of the UK publishers starting to print locally in Australia stuck with their basic UK format. Penguin’s launch in 1935 had transformed the UK market, with standard designed covers almost universally adopted, so that was what Australia got too. Over the years the design of White Circle covers in Australia gradually diverged from the UK original, but they never seem to have followed Canada or India in rejecting the UK orthodoxy and adopting fully illustrated covers.
The basic UK design with some unusual colour combinations
As in the UK, Australian White Circles come in different sub-series – Crime Club novels in green, Westerns in yellow, Mysteries in purple / magenta and ‘Famous Novels’ in mauve / lilac. There were about 30 to 35 titles in each of the first three sub series, but only around 13 titles in the Famous Novels series, which seems to have been principally aimed at women, combining the general fiction and romance categories in the UK. I think it’s fair to say that few of the titles could be described as famous today.
I’ve never quite understood the distinction between Crime novels and Mystery novels that applied in the 1930s and 1940s, although I imagine it was something to do with the rules of fair play between author and reader in classic stories of detection. In Australia though the rules seem to have been slightly different, with more than one title switching to a different category from the one applying in the UK.
The books sold at 1s 3d, equivalent at the fixed exchange rate of the time to 1 shilling in British currency. This was more or less in line with post-war prices for paperbacks in the UK, although double the standard pre-war price. Only around half of the titles published in Australia were also in the UK White Circle series, but the others are mostly books published by Collins in hardback in the UK and quite a few also appeared in the Canadian White Circle paperbacks. There are though a few by local Australian authors, which were not all published elsewhere by Collins. In particular, two ‘Jeffery Blackburn’ thrillers by Max Afford and two novels by Eleanor Dark.
I’m sure there’s much more to discover about the Australian editions, so I’ll come back to this another time. Some day there are also a few New Zealand editions to investigate.
The Collins White Circle books are probably best remembered these days for their crime novels, but they were also a major publisher of westerns for a period of over 20 years. I wrote recently about the origins of the White Circle series as a paperback imprint of the Collins Crime Club. This post looks at the Wild West Club paperbacks, which joined them shortly after and led the move into other areas of genre fiction.
It may be different in the US, but in the UK for much of the twentieth century, western stories seemed a bit like the poor relation of crime novels. They were categorised in the same way as genre fiction, but they never had the cultural or intellectual status that has been given to crime novels, or at least to the best of them.
They were certainly popular, selling in huge quantities for many years, but they were generally seen as a downmarket product. They appeared mostly in paperback rather than hardback and were often passed around from reader to reader until they disintegrated, so that copies can now be very difficult to find. In my experience, western paperbacks are usually rarer than the equivalent crime paperbacks, but certainly not as popular with either readers or collectors these days, so rarely sell for more than a few pounds.
Shortly after launching the Collins Crime Club as a hardback series in 1930, the publisher turned its attention to westerns and to an equivalent Wild West Club. It must have seemed a natural development, but it never caught on in the same way. The middle class buyers who could afford 7s 6d for a Crime Club novel, perhaps did not want to be seen reading westerns. The intellectual challenge of solving crimes and the upper class setting of many crime novels (and many of the crime authors) made detective novels thoroughly respectable, while western stories were pure escapism. Paperbacks selling at 6d, or even 2d or 3d, seemed to be their natural habitat, rather than hardbacks at 7s 6d.
Early Collins Wild West club hardbacks
So when Collins launched a series of Crime Club paperbacks in April 1936 to counter the threat from Penguin Books, a similar series of Wild West Club paperbacks was an obvious follow-up. The first 6 books appeared in August of the same year, adopting a very similar format, again strongly influenced by Penguin.
In particular the success of Penguin (which at this point was little more than a year old) meant that the books had standard designed covers rather than garishly illustrated ones. It stills seems astonishing to me that Penguin’s influence was so strong that it effectively led to a 20 year gap in the use of cover illustration on paperbacks across a wide section of the UK market, even including westerns. Both before and after, cover illustration was a vital aspect of selling paperbacks, but for that 20 year period, the normal rules of marketing seem to have been suspended.
The design of the Collins Wild West Club paperbacks was clearly intended to be consistent with the design of the Crime Club paperbacks, even though at the start there was no overall series branding and the term White Circle was not used. The green of the crime titles was replaced with yellow for westerns and the hooded murderers gave way to a cowboy with his lasso neatly framing the same white circle for title and author. As with the early Crime Club titles, the back cover of the first 6 books was predominantly black, before switching to yellow. Numbering started from 101, leaving the first 100 for Crime Club paperbacks.
The blurb on the back cover explicitly sold them as ‘healthy outdoor fiction’ in contrast to many of the alternative stories available. ‘Thousands of readers, tired of sex novels and seeking the ‘escape’ which only a really good yarn can bring, are turning to good, clean stories of life and adventure in the open spaces’. The front cover again referred to the Wild West club as the ‘guarantee of a clean open air story’. Westerns it seems, were the antidote to sex.
I haven’t read enough to know whether they delivered on their promise of clean and healthy fun, but the list of titles and authors doesn’t seem to me to have aged well. Writers such as ‘Robert J. Horton’ and ‘C. Wesley Sanders’ are little remembered today so far as I know. While the Crime Club was genuinely publishing the leading crime authors of its day, the Wild West Club perhaps had to settle for some of the second rank authors in its genre. This may just reflect the reality that Britain could never claim any leadership in wild west fiction to compare with its position in crime fiction in the 1920s and 1930s. Western stories would always come from across the Atlantic and Collins may not have been best placed either to identify or to obtain the leading authors and titles.
Nevertheless the first 6 books in August 1936 were followed by 3 more in February 1937 and a further 3 in April, to take the series up to volume 112. By the time volumes 113 to 115 appeared in February 1938 the ‘White Circle’ name had been adopted. The books and the dustwrappers started to carry advertising for books across the series, including Crime Club novels, mystery novels and romance as well as the other Wild West Club novels.
The series continued to grow at a fair rate and by mid 1941 Collins had published over 50 novels as Wild West Club paperbacks. There was then a bit of a gap as paper rationing started to bite and attention switched to some extent to the series of White Circle Services Editions, which included a lot of westerns. A relatively small number of books continued to be published in the main series and it revived after the war and continued right through until 1959. There were occasional bursts of activity, but rarely more than half a dozen books a year. A final total of 123 books in the series (from 101 to 223w) is an impressive total, although less so when you think that it stretched out over a period of 23 years from 1936 to 1959.