The Hooded Gunman: An Illustrated History of Collins Crime Club (2019) by John Curran

Instructions on what to do when you receive a copy of this book:

Step 1: Clutch it in your arms and smile.

Step 2: Gaze at the front cover, noting the different titles featured. Smiling still encouraged.

Step 3: Open the book at random to gaze at more beautiful pages.

Step 4: Take a good strong sniff of the new book smell.

Step 5: Repeat steps 2-4 several times.

Step 6: Now you can finally read the book.

So, as you can probably tell from the above instructions, it did indeed feel like Christmas had come early, when I got my copy of this title. Harper Collins have gone all out on the aesthetics of the book, making this book a joy to look at, as well as read. Before proceeding any further with this review, I must give the following warning:

The Hooded Gunman opens with a series of introductions on topics such as Collins as a publisher, (which seems to have been quite a dynasty, with an awful lot of Williams) and the dawn of the Golden Age, which takes a look at the landmark titles between 1841 and 1921 and how ‘the innovations they presented’ went on to be reflected ‘throughout the 64 years of the Crime Club.’ Some interesting choices in this latter section, including The Mystery of Edwin Drood, as an example of the reader as detective. John then moves onto talking about how Collins got into publishing crime fiction, beginning with titles such as The Skeleton Key (1919) by Bernard Capes and The Cask (1920) by Freeman Wills Crofts. Crofts fans will enjoy this section which includes the author’s own reflections on his debut novel, as well as an entertaining anecdote from a former Collins’ editor on the sheer amount of research Crofts would do in order to prove a point of fact. After looking at a few more titles from the 1920s, John then moves the story onto the beginning of The Detective Story Club in 1929, before talking about The Crime Club, which started in 1930. It is clear to see that John put a lot of hours in to researching this book, as he packs a great deal of insight and key information into his introduction on The Crime Club. Readers can find out what influenced the club’s creation, as well as initial reactions to the club, (including a scathing letter in The Times Literary Supplement signed by a number of big crime writers such as Dorothy L Sayers and Anthony Berkeley). There is also behind the scenes information on the cover designs used in the club and John’s personal favourite covers, (contained in a section pleasing called Desert Island Covers – definitely something I would like to do on my blog at some point.)

After the various introductions, the book works chronologically with each chapter focusing on a given decade and the titles printed in each month and year. Each title cover is shown, so each page covers 3-5months. John then picks some authors and titles to comment on, frequently referring to contemporary reviews and the writers’ own opinions. Here are some highlights, (believe me there’s lots more!):

1930s

  • The prolific Edgar Wallace wrote The Devil Man in 60 hours.
  • Margaret Cole explained that she and her husband ceased producing detective novels when ‘I became so bored with the one I was currently writing that I stopped halfway through and never began again.’ It never bodes well when even the writer is bored by a story…
  • I also just love the personal touch in John’s writing and his prose’s overall style, which makes this book entertaining as well as informative: ‘Rupert Penny […] published eight unapologetically brain-boggling detective stories.’ ‘Mignon Good (M. G.) Eberhart [… is] sometimes called (very inaccurately) ‘the American Agatha Christie.’’
  • ‘In their Autumn 1938 newsletter Crime Club claimed that Stout was the first Crime Club writer to have a beard.’ Slow news month?

1940s

  • John explains how Collins was affected by WW2, including having some of their properties in London bombed.
  • The reason Leslie Ford’s novel The Philadelphia Murder Story (1945) has a body ‘found in the palatial lobby of real-life Curtis Publishing Company building on the intersection of South 6th and Walnut Street, Philadelphia,’ is because ‘they published The Saturday Evening Post, which serialised many of Ford’s novels, and it was at their request that she deposited her murder victim there.’

1960s

  • I thought Val Gielgud’s The Goggle-Box Affair (1963), had a surprisingly apt title, given the Channel 4 programme and the mystery itself gives ‘an inside look at the then innovative world of commercial television.’
  • Also, in this decade you can find out the name of the title of the crime novel with the ‘the most appalling murder in Crime Club, if not the entire genre of crime fiction…’ Believe me, it’s not pretty…
  • A Necessary End (1969) by Val Gielgud has a suspect use the reading of a Crime Club book as part of their alibi, commenting that, ‘It promised to be absorbing. But promise out-ran performance.’
  • Some unusual titles: The Sea Monks by Andrew Garve, Death of a Sardine by Joan Fleming and Crystallised Carbon Pig (1965) by John Wainwright.

1970s

  • Ngaio Marsh suggested to Julian Symons the titles of Three Pipe Problem (1975) and this novel is ‘the only Sherlock Holmes-themed book in the Crime Club catalogue.’
  • You can also find out the name of the man who aside from crime writing was also responsible ‘for signing The Beatles,’ when they ‘worked for Capitol Records.’

Looking back over these “decade” chapters I think this book achieves both breadth and depth and I enjoyed noting which authors were included in the club and how often. I also really enjoyed playing the game of counting how many titles I had read out of the 2012 published. My final numbers are shown below:

Initially I was a little worried by the figures, but then I considered the range of authors in the club and came to the conclusion that the majority of what I have read from these time periods has been by non-club authors. However, the Puzzle Doctor will probably do much better at me in this game given his reading of John Rhode/Miles Burton, who features a lot in The Crime Club catalogue. Nevertheless, pen and paper were permanently by my side when reading this book, so I have lots of titles I want to track down and read.

Following on from this is the postscript, which looks at a range of themes, from the factors which made The Crime Club a success, to phantom titles, Crime Club card games and writing competitions, as well as other imprints such as The White Circle and anniversary or special collections within The Crime Club, such as Famous Firsts and Disappearing Detectives. I certainly found this latter theme a great help so I could get my head around the myriad of different series; some of which I have titles from.

The final section in this book is entitled: Murder She Wrote: The Descriptive Blurbs. Not only is this section helpful for deciding which books to buy, but I also found it interesting to seeing the changes in blurb writing style and noticing how in certain decades and with certain authors, particular phrases kept getting repeated.

As you can see from my final rating, this volume is an astounding piece of work, bursting with information, yet delivered and executed in such a readable and entertaining fashion. Whether you love dust jacket artwork, publishing history or simply a fan of vintage crime fiction, this is the book for you.

Now all I need is a coffee table to put my first coffee table book on…

Rating: 5/5

Source: Review Copy (HarperCollins)

14 comments

  1. You’ll laugh, but a frequent fantasy of mine has been to have a coffee table style book filled with pictures of vintage mystery cover art and some discussion of the books. I find myself in plenty of circumstances where I don’t quite have the time or attention to read a novel, and yet I don’t really have anything I want to look at on my phone. And yet my mind wants that GAD fix. How great would it be, I’ve often thought, if I just had a book with lush pictures of covers by my favorite authors that I could just flip through. It looks like John Curran has done just that. I have a birthday coming up in a few weeks…

    As to the books contained within that you’ve read – boy, you’ve been slacking…

    Liked by 1 person

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