‘The hunt and curation were the best parts of the process’: Thomas Abraham

Published : Aug 24, 2023 11:00 IST - 10 MINS READ

Thomas Abraham, MD of Hachette India, who has curated the series.

Thomas Abraham, MD of Hachette India, who has curated the series. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

The MD of Hachette India has collected the Hodder & Stoughton yellowbacks since the late 1980s, retaining their signature look and flavour.

These days, certain bookstores across India are looking bright and happy in yellow with marquees announcing Hachette’s new series of books titled “The Great Yellowbacks”. It comes with the spiffy tagline, “Yellow is the new noir”, which might make you giddy with joy if you are the kind whose comfort food is a good murder mystery, preferably of the vintage kind. Released in June 2023, this series, with the first batch consisting of 175 titles, revives the yellowbacks of yore, marking their 100th anniversary.

The yellowjackets or yellowbacks were a series of bestselling adventure and crime thrillers published by Hodder & Stoughton between 1923 and 1939, and again from 1949 to 1957. Building on the popularity of the 19th century penny-dreadfuls, they were full of murder and mayhem, blood and horror, action and adventure, ratiocination and detection—all creating a heady mix that virtually led to the mass market revolution of the early 20th century.

Some of the yellowback titles.

Some of the yellowback titles. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

The Hachette series resurrects these classics and adds to the collection by including superhits of the time, whether crime thrillers or sub-genres like horror, gothic, romance, westerns, etc. The man behind the project is the Hachette MD, Thomas Abraham.

“This is possibly the largest single reissue/revival programme with almost 200 titles. I’ve curated this personally and it took me seven years,” he said. The personal touch is evident right from the copyright page, which announces: “The text in these editions in most cases have been reprinted as is, with minimal editorial changes and by and large no bowdlerizing for political correctness…. The narratives, language, beliefs, social mores and/or cultural depictions, in these volumes are a reflection of their times and must be viewed as such.” This is strong, given the noises heard these days to “sanitise” old classics by removing words or references that might be considered objectional by today’s standards.

Together, the books are a feast set in a time sizzling with droolworthy men, dazzling fashionistas, and clever Blue Stockings. Abraham talks about the series in this email interview. Excerpts:

How did you arrive at the idea of reviving the yellowbacks? Did you have the full Hodder & Stoughton series? Have you read them all?

Oh, no. The full series would be several thousand titles considering the yellowbacks had two series runs—the first from 1923 to 1939, before the Second World War interrupted them. Then, in the post-war years, Hodder discontinued the yellowback run and set up a new paperback imprint called Great Pan (Pan became a Macmillan imprint later when Hodder exited the arrangement) and a lot of the thrillers were published under that imprint. The yellowback imprint came back from 1949 to 1957. After that it slowly morphed into Hodder paperbacks, losing the signature look.

My own interest dates back to my schooldays in the mid-1970s when I got hold of my first yellowback in a used-books market. Over the years, I got a few more. The signature design and livery had a lure of its own that has stayed with me. From the late 1980s I was collecting them wherever I could find them, and they aren’t easy to come by.

So that was the kick-off even before I joined publishing. It all sort of came full circle when I came to work for Hachette 15 years ago (and from there started the germ of the idea to actually publish a whole range reviving the imprint). Through my years in publishing I’ve been fascinated by the history of publishing and the great imprints, and have now found a great many of the heritage ones in Hachette—from John Murray (who published Darwin, Jane Austen and Conan Doyle), through Virago and Gollancz, and of course, my personal favourite—the yellowbacks by Hodder & Stoughton.

From a market perspective, India has always been a throwback market, where books, whether non-fiction or general/literary fiction, from a bygone era still dominate sales in a way you don’t see in other publishing markets. But that’s also been very well covered. The gap I felt was in crime fiction and thrillers—traditionally the top-selling leisure segment. Hence the idea of reviving this imprint in its 100th year—though we’ve gone beyond crime fiction into classic adventure thrillers and gothic/supernatural too.

“The hunt and curation were the best parts of the process. Each time you find one treasure, a few more rarities pop up. I finally had a list of over 400 titles. ”

Some of the books, published in addition to the Hodder & Stoughton series, must be out of print, or very rare now. Searching for them must have been quite a book hunt. Do you have any interesting anecdotes to share?

That’s right and another reason it took so long. But the hunt and curation were the best parts of the process. Each time you find one treasure, a few more rarities pop up. I finally had a list of over 400 titles. The first batch has 175 books (comprising almost 200 titles if you count the omnibuses that have 4-books-in-1 and so on) and there will be at least another batch coming: some already in the pipeline, and some from more rabbit holes I’m ready to go down. So, in terms of curation, it sort of came about in two ways. First there was the existing heritage—of the imprint, the livery, the design, and the broad contents or categories they covered. So I looked first at the yellowback stable and pulled out the ones I thought would have the most resonance today. There are quite a few that were hits of their time, but didn’t make the cut in terms of having that classic timeless appeal.

Then as I was reading more and more… I decided that while the list would have all the main categories that the yellowbacks covered—crime, detective, noir, adventure-thrillers, swashbucklers, westerns, romance, and general fiction (in short, most commercial genres)—it should also showcase the history of detecting and crime fiction.

From there it went into looking for landmark works. Hence the start of the crime oeuvre with Zadig (1747) and not a century down with Dupin or Lecoq, though they’re there too. So, from the first traces in the 18th century down to the golden age—you’ll find them all in this batch. From perennial favourites (Sherlock Holmes, Peter Wimsey, or Sam Spade) to lesser known (today) figures like Martin Hewitt, Montague Egg or The Thinking machine, or Uncle Abner.

Further curation was in figuring out what sort of editions we wanted: what should be the “packaging” combinations? Complete, series and cycles within works… and all at the price of a conventional paperback—that’s where the real value lies. The collections are truly complete (for eg. The Prisoner of Zenda is commonly available, but this is the only edition in India together with its sequel and rare prequel, Princess Osra); the selections go for key inclusions, hand-picked bundling and combinations; and core saga/story cycle elements (Bulldog Drummond’s Peterson rounds, Wallace’s Just Men series, The Saint’s Rayt Marius duel, or Tarzan’s first quadrilogy).

In terms of a rewarding hunt, there’s the story of putting together The Complete Thin Man. While researching Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man series, I found that there was a first draft that existed as a complete novella, published in a magazine in 1975 (never before or since in book form), so we couldn’t justifiably call the edition The Complete Thin Man without including that draft. It took some years to find a copy and get it off an auction in the US—but today our yellowback is the only actual edition that is truly The Complete Thin Man.

I was struck by the way many of the detectives have bits and pieces of Sherlock in them. There is August Derleth’s Solar Pons, who is like Sherlock reborn. Why do you think writers kept going back to Holmes? Was it just because he was such a publishing success? Or was it because Conan Doyle had, as it were, laid down the ground rules for the ideal detective that could not be bettered?

Yes, that’s right. Sherlock is of course the master and the most successful detective of all times and the most played movie character too. It’s interesting you mention the ground rules because as a formal manifesto, that was actually put down by Ronald Knox for the Detection Club (I’ve listed those rules in our Knox inclusion in the yellowbacks, The Three Taps). Without putting down any formal rules, Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes created all the tropes that were to characterise every kind of detection standard and variation.

You had the faithful companion and diarist/narrator, you had the investigation (both procedural and armchair brilliance), you had the human interest stories and the solution/revelation. So that was the master class. And almost every detective had some element or the other. Martin Hewitt was written to fill the gap created by Holmes stories after Conan Doyle stopped writing them. Solar Pons actually began as a continuation of Holmes but when not allowed to use the name, August Derleth created a most brilliant pastiche in Solar Pons.

One of the original jackets

One of the original jackets | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

India, as the jewel of the colonies, keeps recurring in these books. And it tends to be associated with the Gothic/exotic, as in the Prince Zaleski books. Your comments.

India has been the mystical, exotic land in adventure and detective fiction: whether in Wilkie Collins’ Moonstone or P.C. Wren’s Beau Geste or Hilton’s Lost Horizon. Sherlock Holmes also had many episodes featuring India—most notably the Agra treasure. Solar Pons has a story with an apparition of Siva as plot device. The yellowbacks even had an author who used the (pseudonymous) name Ganpat. So, the lure of this semi-supernatural, wildly exciting land has always been there from the 19th century down to the 1970s. Let’s not forget Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. The later batch will have some titles featuring this (India as locale, theme and character)—whether you want to read it as escapist fiction or samples of the colonial gaze is up to you. They remain terrific examples of both entertainment and a record of times gone by and the attitudes prevalent then.

“India has been the mystical, exotic land in adventure and detective fiction: whether in Wilkie Collins’ Moonstone or P.C. Wren’s Beau Geste or Hilton’s Lost Horizon. ”

The percentage of female writers in relation to male writers is small. Yet Agatha Christie was writing vigorously in the 1930s and 1940s. Your comments.

Statistically there were more male writers, but it’s not as if there were fewer women—both in terms of impact or being at the forefront. Many used male pseudonyms like Anthony Gilbert (in reality Lucy Beatrice Malleson). But more importantly, both female writers and female detectives were there right from the early pioneering stage. Loveday Brooke, Miss G, Lady Molly were all early detectives. And alongside (or before) Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, Baroness Orczy, Isabel Ostrander, Patricia Wentworth, were huge author brands.

Is there anybody like Miss Marple—the old female village gossip as detective, who is the farthest that can be from the action hero—in the published and to-be-published yellowbacks?

Yes, see our Patricia Wentworth title Grey Mask where I’ve annotated the bold line precisely with this—“before there was Miss Marple there was Miss Silver”. Likewise, the detectives mentioned above.

It has been two months since the series was released. How is it doing?

It has far exceeded expectations—by over 15 times in fact. But that’s because I conceived it as short digital run series—printing to demand and catering to a niche. I’m delighted to find that the appeal still exists and its going beyond just the nostalgia market, and a lot of readers are rediscovering the history of crime and detective fiction through the range.

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