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Preserving India’s Wild West history

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.

  India WC WWC1- Texas triggers  India WC WWC1- Texas triggers title page  India WC WWC1- Texas triggers printing history

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.

Ceylon WC1 Rustlers on the loose

A White Circle western, published in Ceylon

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Gunfight at the White Circle

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.

White Circle 111

An early Wild West Club paperback

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.

White Circle 102

Volume 102 of the Wild West Club paperback series

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.

White Circle 216w

A White Circle western from 1958, still with the same basic cover design

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.