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

Hooded Gunman, The

Recent years have been very kind to the Golden Age Detection nerd seeking non-fiction reference works.  Indeed, if it didn’t seem like so much of a rip-off of the Reprint of the Year Award Kate runs over at CrossExaminingCrime, I’d be inclined to start a GAD Reference Work of the Year Awards.

The two have already crossed over in a way, since my championing of the reprint of Locked Room Murders (2nd ed., 1991) ed. Robert Adey won the inaugural RotYA last year, and recent years have seen a comparative slew popular reference works — ‘popular’ in the sense of contrasting them with the academic works put out by the likes of Palgrave Macmillan.  Martin Edwards gave us the history of The Detection Club in The Golden Age of Murder (2015), and then took a sweep through the genre in The History of Classic Crime in 100 Books (2017), which I haven’t reviewed on here yet because I honestly don’t know how to go about addressing such a rich and comprehensive listing of so many books I’ve not myself read.  Additionally, Locked Room International have recently added to their reprint of that classic Adey work by publishing a brand new supplemental edition containing impossible crimes featured in popular media since 1991 (it’s to be hoped that this just becomes a rolling project now, and we get supplemental supplemental editions every 10 or so years).

Of course — arguably back before it was cool again — we’ve also had Curtis Evans bringing us examinations of the life and works of Todd Downing, G.D.H and Margaret Cole, Henry Wade, John Rhode/Miles Burton, Freeman Wills Crofts, and J.J. Connington, as well as editing collections of essays in honour of Douglas G. Greene and on the representations of Queer culture in GAD.  Yes, I’m missing out titles and authors — Talking About Detective Fiction (2009) by P.D. James, say — and you’ll be sure to let me know about them in the comments, but I’m not trying to provide an exhaustive sweep here, more just give a flavour of how rich the palette of GAD reference works has become.

GAD reference

Buy, buy, buy!

And this is before we get to the work of Dr. John Curran, who has carved out an important niche of his own in producing definitive works on the various aspects of the work of Agatha Christie — unpicking the mysteries contained in her many  notebooks, analysing the work of the late, great cover artist Tom Adams — as well as writing a number of introductions to the rafts of GAD reprints we’ve been lucky enough to enjoy of late under the auspices of the (temporarily?) rejuvenated HarperCollins Detective Club.  Today, though, belongs to his most recent book, The Hooded Gunman: An Illustrated History of the Collins Crime Club (2019).

I’ll be honest, I’m not really someone who understands coffee table books.  They reek of a book that someone buys to appear to satisfy an interest without having to actually read — lots of old maps, or paintings by forgotten Dutchmen, or beautiful aerial photographs — and feel more like props in a life that no-one actually leads, the sort of thing left open on a table for a model to drift past while filming a fashionable commercial.  The publisher/lifestyle choice Taschen specialises exclusively in this sort of thing, and I’m astounded at how many people must know someone well enough to willingly spend the money a Taschen book costs on a gift for them and yet not well enough to spend that money on something that actually reflects their personality and/or interests.  And I know there are lots of these people because, even in these straitened economic times, Taschen is somehow still in business.  But I digress.

My point is, the mention of the words “coffee table book” usually kills my interest quicker than the phrase “Michael Bublé album”, and yet I don’t know how else to describe this magnificent undertaking.  I’ve not read the entirety of this book — just like I didn’t read every word in Adey — but I know it’s wonderful, and I’m deeply grateful that the expertise that has obviously gone into its creation was available to make it happen.  The acknowledgements read like a Who’s Who of GAD What’s What, and while this raises the occasional unanswered question — was It Walks by Night, the debut novel of John Dickson Carr, really published in 1929 and we’ve all been misattributing it this whole time? — it also shows how much work has gone into bringing this illustrated history to us.

To take the ‘history’ part first, the opening 30 pages are a rundown of the various William Collinses (I through V) who oversaw the life of Collins & Sons, Ltd from its formation in 1819 through to the 1970s, their move into publishing crime fiction before, during, and after the belle epoque of the Golden Age, and their contribution in bringing so many of the subgenres to public awareness: we are given examples of The Country House Mystery, The Great Detective, The Forensic Detective, etc. published as part of the Collins Crime Club, an imprint denoted by the “Man with the Gun” image that gives this book its title.  As well as a concise and brisk sweep through the important factors — the rise of detective fiction, the importance of well-judged cover art — this is also a very entertaining historical sweep and contains, in a frankly hilarious story about Freeman Wills Crofts meeting with his editor to discuss The Ponson Case (1921), a salutary example of being able to rely on rigorous and personal research.

Hooded Gunman 4

This brings us, then, to the ‘illustrated’ part — the next 170 pages being a series of gorgeously laid out spreads featuring the cover of every book published as part of the Collins Crime Club.  I attempted to photograph these spreads, but photography is not a strong suit of mine and so I’m going to simply grab some captures that already exist online…but, by heavens, it looks amazing.  Sorted by decade, and with little notes of interest thrown in here and there, it’s fascinating to see all these titles and their covers together.  Chance are, those of us not possessed of large funds of book-buying have had to make do with coverless editions of these when we find them secondhand, and it’s amazing to see the quality and consistency of the designs all arrayed in one place.

Equally fascinating is seeing how design fashions change with each decade.  By and large, the 1930s covers start out with a blocky simplicity that develops into a charmingly utilitarianism as the decade progresses (lots of policemen and skulls); the 1940s add a menacing air of threat by featuring a more person-oriented cover; the 1950s are heavily character-based, perhaps in response to the more woman-in-peril elements that crept into the crime fiction of that decade; the 1960s go for cubistic prints and isolated body parts, and the 1970s adds to this a sort of mundane close-up photography of unusual objects to create a jarring contradiction; the 1980s and 90s then over-egg this to the point of leeching most of the romance and intrigue out of the covers, but you cant help but feel that this is at least in part in response to genre developments elsewhere.  You’re vanishingly unlikely to have had the opportunity to study this range of artwork before, and this is one coffee table book that you really feel people will read — there’s as much in it for the design nerd as the fictional murder geek.

Hooded Gunman 1

A brief concluding section to this contains some lovely historical footnotes: phantom titles which never appeared in the Collins Crime Club imprint, the iconic ‘White Circle’ line — a cover design easily the match of the ever-popular Green Penguin for functionality, and, perhaps controversially, I’ve always felt the White Circle covers to be far superior to the Penguins — some special editions of books, and a mention of a very interesting-sounding card game.  As a dash through the associated esoterica that such a long-lived imprint would have produced, it’s hard to fault, and impressively comprehensive.

Hooded Gunman 3

We finish with 160 pages of the blurbs for every single book — yup, every one — and again you have to marvel at the range of plots arrayed under this one imprint for the seven decades it produced high-quality crime fiction for the masses.  We’ve enjoyed a good run of reprints of late where classic crime fiction is concerned, but it’s still easy to forget that at one time this sort of this was the chief occupation of a large, reputable publisher committed to putting out excellent books by excellent authors.  In a world where newspapers, railway stations, social media, and seemingly every third blog works hard to push each week’s new The Girl with a Window in the Building of Her Secret title upon you, it’s incredible to think that such efforts were at one time deployed for the now-classic authors and titles contained herein.

As a trip down memory lane, this book is a delight; as a celebration of the Collins Crime Club and all the work done by their multitudes to bring these books to the public, this book makes you feel warm inside and hopeful for the future of classic reprints — because if someone saw value in these books before, and if the expertise on display here has taken the time to remember that, then maybe interest will eventually circle round again.  How wonderful to be John Curran, and to have the opportunity to immerse yourself so fully in these sorts of pursuits; and how wonderful for us that David Brawn had the insight to recognise the value of this undertaking and to bring it to fruition.  Just enough time remains for you to request this as a gift this festive season, and it’s a wonderfully detailed and rich piece of history that’s uncommon enough even in these GAD-sympathetic times.  Equally, there’s no reason you couldn’t get your own copy.  Go on, you’ve worked hard this year, you’ve doubtless earned it…

19 thoughts on “#609: The Hooded Gunman: An Illustrated History of the Collins Crime Club (2019) by John Curran

    • It’s an odd one to write about — and I very nearly didn’t — because one doesn’t enjoy it in the same way as any other book: if you sat down and read it cover-to-cover I can see it becoming a little tedious (much like Adey would). But it’s such a great piece of historical research, and clearly something that rewards even the briefest peruse: from appreciation of the art, to an overview of what was achieved by Collins, to a quick flick through the sheer range of tales the Crime Club imprint published…whichever way you come at it, there’s always something to enjoy.

      Oh, god, I’m not going to become the sort of person who buys coffee table books now, am I?

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  1. …it’s to be hoped that this just becomes a rolling project now, and we get supplemental supplemental editions every 10 or so years.

    Well, I can tell you a third supplemental edition would not only be welcomed with open arms, but is an absolute necessity, because the new edition is not entirely up-to-date. I found a number of short stories and novels are still missing from the list.

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    • Well, inevitably — there have been books published since the submission deadline for this passed which obviously won’t be in it (Endgame (2019) by Daniel Cole for one, not that anyone really needs to know about that book…) and doubtless other, older, neglected stories unearthed all the time which would have been in the very first Adey had they been recognised back then. As a rolling project, it’s made easier now by knowing to keep an eye out — I have a list of books, problems, and solutions on the go, and am happy to turn it in when the time comes 🙂 Hey, we nerds gotta nerd, right?

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      • I just got the supplement this week and have been having a grand old time with it since then. It will be a treasured part of my reference library.

        Sadly, my name was misspelled in the acknowledgements. 😦

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  2. I am very angry with you: I received this book only last weekend as a birthday present, and the least you could have done would have been to give me a year to read it and write my own review before you jumped the gun here! Really, JJ!

    I also have a bone to pick with you regarding your putdowns of Michael Buble because he is f**king dreamy to me, and his albums are like silky Coffeemate sliding down a container into a piping hot cup of java.

    I’ve barely opened the book, but it looks amazing. And coffee table books are not meant to be read in one sitting. That’s why they sit on your coffee table: you’re curled up in your robe, sipping a Buble’ing hot cup of java, and you’re tired of watching the pundits on MSNBC, or you’re waiting for the next episode of Taskmaster so you pick up the book and . . . you amble through it! I explain all of this in my soon-to-be-published coffee table book, The Art of Reading a Coffee Table Book. You’d better buy one.

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    • I spent a long time trying to come up with a non-offensive example of inspired disinterest — my initial, instinctive choice would have upset a lot of people for some reason — and then I just picked the most mass-produced, harmless one I could and figured it would still put someone’s back up. And, in fairness, if you’re the kind of person who puts Coffeemate in their coffee, do you really have any taste at all? 🙂

      This was such a wonderful project, and it amazes me that it got off the ground at all: we’re told publishing is in crisis, that the written word is being spurned, that no-one reads any more, and yet somehow out little corner of nerdery is being so well-served at present — not just in those non-fiction books listed above, but in the width and depth of classic-era crime fiction flooding out (not always via legitimate channels…which is surely when you know something it a success), it’s almost too good to be true. And 2020 sees a continuation of the Crofts reprints, the BLCC series, more stuff from LRI, more shin honkaku from Pushkin…we find ourselves in a very fortunate place as people who enjoy this kind of thing. Please, everyone, keep buying it so that we can continue to enjoy it!

      If you write a coffee table book, Brad, I’ll by five. And extra tables.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I got this for my birthday and I’ve been loving it ever since. It was the type of thing I had dreamed of for years – something GAD related that I could flip through when I had a slice of time on my hands. Too often I find myself with 10 minutes to spare, which isn’t enough time to bury myself into a novel. Of course, the internet is a typical crutch, but when I’ve already caught up on the handful of sites that I read, I just feel like I’m mindlessly wasting time (or worse, I start browsing for books to buy).

    The Hooded Gunman is exactly what I was yearning for. I can flip through the pages randomly taking in the cover art. I can flip through the back section and read reviews of authors like Virgil Markham and Rupert Penny (although, honestly, are we ever going to get a chance to read those Markham books? They go for hundreds!). I can even flip around through the years and ponder the order that this mixture of books were released.

    I’d love to see others copy this format. My own dream would be a mixture of vintage Dell, Avon, Bantam, and Pocket Books covers, mixed with smaller publishers like Corgi, Hands-Book, or Bart House. Maybe organize the content by author and include a two paragraph plot summary of each book alongside the cover art. With widely published authors like Christie, Carr, and Queen, you could dedicate an entire page to each book, given the selection of editions out there. That would be about 200 pages just from those three authors alone!

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    • I get the impression that the Dilys Winn collections Murder Ink and others were much the same, but the versions I bought were a touch on the mouldy side and I didn’t want to risk them in such close proximity to my other books so didn’t keep them. But you’re right about the joy of being able to just pick this up and flip through for a minute or twenty…and at least those Markham synopses will give us a chance to know which one we like the sound of most and so picket publishers to reprint — my money’s on The Dead Are Prowling (look at the care that’s gone in here, too, with it noted “[all sic]” after the character names — implying that the synopsis has the names wrong…goddamn, that’s a wonderful level of attention to pay) or Song of Doom. But really anything from Markham, right? The Devil Drives was such a hoot, to have him OOP is a crime.

      I vote for a fully illustrated history of the Dell mapbacks next. In fact, if John Curran could simply produce one of these “classic imprints” histories every six or so years, and LRI bring out another Adey supplement every ten or so years, I think that would be somewhat wonderful.

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      • It’s funny though, because out of all of those Virgil Markham summaries, The Devil Drives probably sounds the least interesting – there isn’t even mention of the locked room murder. And yet, I think we’d both agree, that’s a stellar title. It makes me really interested about the rest of Markham’s library.

        I concur on the Dell mapback idea. I’m curious what the rights are involved in a book on cover art.

        As for Murder Ink – thanks for reminding me of that set, it had slipped my mind. Very easy to get my hands on.

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        • I imagine the Markham rights might be the province of Harper Collins, right, same as other Crime Club/Detective Club titles? Someone get onto David Brawn — he’s the brains at HC behind these classic reprints. Everyone go out and buy two Detective Club reissues, then the sales will hopefully be sufficient for Markham reprints to be a possibility…

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      • I finally got my copy of Murder Ink and it’s absolutely addicting. It’s unbelievable how much material they managed to compile for that – I could get lost for days. It’s funny, I flipped open the book randomly for the first time and was met with an article on Dell map backs. It’s a shame it isn’t in color though, as the vivid colors are part of what makes the map backs so great to look at.

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        • Yeah, I’m amazed it’s not more discussed online — maybe there’s an assumption that everyone simply knows about it, which certainly seemed to be the case when I first learned of it through some casual mentions on one blog or another. And there are at least three of them, I believe — so plenty more for you to track down!

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          • Gosh, you two, you go on and on about this as if it was a new toy. I’ve had all the Murder Ink books for years and years. Now let’s move on . . . 🙂

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            • Gosh, I know, right? Who wants to talk about old books? Some of them don’t even have agoraphobic amnesiacs in them. Yeuch.

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