Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Tracing the Career Arc of One Arthur Frederick Hobart Mills

What a prolific family! The Mills family that I find myself investigating may not have achieved immortality in the minds of men, but their knack for having their written words published [or editing or translating the works of others] makes one happy that there was no worldwide shortage of printer's ink in the last century and a half. They certainly went through their share, especially Capt. Arthur Frederick Hobart Mills [left, after a trip to China]!

Just arrived here in sun-drenched Ocala, Florida, via first class mail is The Apache Girl by Arthur Mills [W. Collins Sons & Co., Ltd.: London], half-brother of George Mills and 9 years George's senior, born on 12 July, 1887. He was the husband of Lady Dorothy Mills, yet another author. This edition is the Fifth Impression, dated June, 1932. The First Impression had been published in April, 1930.

And what a difference a genre makes! A novel of "love and adventure," The Apache Girl's 'tale of the tape' has it stepping in at 12 x 18.5 cm, and 2.5 cm thick. By comparison, yesterday's arrival, The Road to Timbuktu, is 15 x 22 cm, and 3.5 cm thick. Of course, The Road to Timbuktu is replete with photographic illustrations printed on far more lustrous paper, and Lady Dorothy Mills's 1924 volume a non-fiction book, almost a reference text in a way, despite its first person narrative.

Also, perhaps the worldwide Great Depression factored in. The Apache Girl has no endpapers—there's printing from cover to cover, including two pages of advertisements for other "Detective Novels" at the end. The paper has been calendared to be thinner, and the typeface [Remember when "fonts" were "typefaces"?] is quite a bit smaller. All of these modifications would have helped the company during stressful economic times.

The Apache Girl is from a series called "Collins' New 1/˗ Fiction Library." The series included works by Agatha Christie, Philip MacDonald, Edgar Wallace, and Dorothy Sayers [listed in this edition without the "L."], so it appears that Mills was still in good company in 1932. All of the writers with whom he is associated here are credited with writing "Detective Novels" for Collins, not merely inexpensive stories.

Interestingly, 1930 was the year that Collins Sons & Co., Ltd., began their "Collins Crime Club" imprint, which ran through 1994. Wikipedia lists approximately 250 writers in a "complete" list of Collins Crime Club authors who published first editions of their mysteries and thrillers with that house. That's a great many writers, and our Arthur Mills, unfortunately, is nowhere to be found among them.

For Mills to be associated with detective novelists MacDonald, Sayers, Wallace, and Christie in the "New 1/˗ Fiction Library," and in the same year [1932] to have found himself snubbed from gaining membership in the new "Collins Crime Club," may be telling. It would seem that later books by Mills could have been "Crime Club" material simply by scanning their titles: Paris Agent [1935], Brighton Alibi [1936], Jewel Thief [1939], and Don't Touch the Body [1947]. Perhaps Mills was their 251st best crime writer, and one has to draw the line somewhere!

Was this simply Collins Sons & Co.'s way of separating their wheat from the chaff? Mills, no longer a rising star, was almost 45 years old when this edition was printed. There is another clue to his reputation at that time. Across from The Apache Girl's title page, a blurb cites a recent, and presumably positive, review of the book: "BYSTANDER SAYS: 'Mr. Mills knows how to make the most of his materials. A good yarn.'"

A good yarn? Random House Dictionary defines yarn in this context as "a tale, esp. a long story of adventure or incredible happenings: He spun a yarn that outdid any I had ever heard." That's really damning Mills with faint praise, especially when one considers what is implied by "makes the most of his materials." That was one of the two best reviews around? Quite a fall for an author who was quite favorably reviewed just 5 to 10 years before.

A quick check of internet images of Collins books by Arthur Mills shows the ones seen haven't been anointed with any designation as being from the "Collins Crime Club". Looking at a couple of editions of 1932's One Man's Secret, another mystery by Mills, it's easy to see, on what appears to be an earlier edition complete with provovative dust jacket, that this book is still a part of Collins' 'one-schilling' library. Interestingly, Mills does have his very own catchphrase: "Mills for Thrills!"

A second edition of that book I've found is a paperback, part of the Collins "White Circle Books" imprint, a series apparently saddled at the time with uniform, pink covers that rob the text of its individuality, and replete with a bobby blowing a whistle as well as a white circle at lower left designating it as: "A Collins Mystery: Guaranteed of a Good Thrill". With all of the books in this series bearing the same cover design, with only the title [printed plainly in sans-serif block caps] to distinguish any particular offering, it would seem that these frugally designed and cheaply constructed novels were created to be consumable, and were perhaps among the first mass-market paperbacks. Collins even sold advertising space on the back covers!

The following information is found on a website called Fly-By-Night: Canadian Paperbacks of the 40s and Early 50s: "Wm. Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. published approximately 825 books in their White Circle paperback imprint from 1936 until 1959 in Britain. They also published White Circles in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and India."

At least in Canada, these White Circle Books were apparently terrific sellers, at least until the Harlequin series of novels overtook them.

There's evidence that Agatha Christie—arguably the most famous member of the Collins Crime Club—was sold simultaneously as both a
Crime Club and White Circe novelist. But I can't find any evidence that Mills ever had the same opportunity.

As I hold this small, cloth-bound edition of The Apache Girl, with its plain, cobalt blue boards, stained and faded, and its gilt-imprinted spine, sadly tarnished, I wonder about Arthur Mills.

His earlier books had been translated into French, German, and even Swedish, and sent around the empire, meaning around the entire globe. Many of his titles crept into multiple printings, up to a half-dozen impressions or more, and when one publisher was finished, another was often there to pick up one Mills' yarns and take it to the streets. I've counted 50 different full-length books authored by Arthur Frederick Hobart Mills, and there are countless short stories in magazines of the era, written under the pseudonyms "Platoon Commander", "Arthur Mills", "Arthur Hobart Mills", and even "Frederick Hobart." And, please understand, I don't mean to pretend that I have compiled even close to an exhaustive list of his work by any means.

I did find a mystery of Mills' for sale on-line, Café in Montparnasse, about which the seller wrote, with my emphasis: "Collins, Great Britain. March 1941, 5th printing, 1941. Soft cover. Book Condition: Very Good. 5th or later Edition. This is the British paperback in less than very good condtion. This pb is scarce and uncommon. Scans availiable on request. Shipping will be reduced to $3.50. Author is Frederick Hobart who used the pen name Arthur Mills."

That last line, we know, is backwards, but Mills did write
short story fiction for magazines throughout his career under various names, including Frederick Hobart.

It has been noted, but bears repeating, that at the time of his 1916 wedding, Mills was considered "a handsome and well connected man but with little money." Pounding out 48 full-length books between 1921's Ursula Vanet and 1954's The Maliday Mystery—34 years, inclusive—was quite an undertaking. It seems that Mills likely outworked his reputation as a humble but well-educated officer in the armed forces, but one with no real economic advantages, by sheer perspiration, if not inspiration.

Seventeen—fully one-third of the book titles I've found that were written by Mills—contained between 245 and 255 pages. And all but one of those 17 titles had been published between 1929 and 1940.

As near as I can tell, Mills only published six new titles after after Collins published his White Negro in 1940: Don't Touch the Body [Collins Sons & Co., Ltd.: London, 1947], Shroud of Snow [Evans Bros.: London, 1950], Last Seen Alive [Evans Bros.: London, 1951], Your Number Is Up [Evans Bros.: London, 1952], The Jockey Died First [Staples Press: London, 1953], and his last novel, The Maliday Mystery [Staples Press: London, 1954]. Those last six titles averaged only 218 pages apiece.

Mills, although obviously eschewing retirement, was slowing down. He passed away on 18 February, 1955.

In a blurb in 1951's Last Seen Alive [Ironic, isn't it?], Mills is described thusly, with my emphasis: "Mr. Mills is presently living in Hampshire where his main recreations are golf and gardening. In addition to books of short stories, he has published over twenty novels."

Even in his prime, could his books actually have been considered to be formulaic—comprising almost exactly 250 pages each from 1929 to 1940, no matter the publisher, be it Collins or Hutchison and Co., London? The range in size of 16 books spanned over 11 years was a mere five sheets of paper at the most. That may be amazingly consistent or simply coincidental. Still, I know American pulp fiction writers in the 1930s and '40s were often paid by the word, and quickly learned to meet their goals in the areas of both prose and paychecks!

The notion of "pulp fiction" brings another thought to mind. Was Mills simply regarded as a "hack" by the onset of the Second World War, even after beginning his writing career with seemingly so much promise, something that led his work and his life to be generally forgotten by the industry and the public as well?

I can't help but wonder why Mills published just a single book book, Don't Touch the Body [Collins, 1947], in the full decade between 1940 and 1950. Did the war have anything to do with it? Had he nothing to say, perhaps? Didn't he need the money? Had he been ill or suffered an injury? Couldn't he find a publisher? Was he just tired of writing—something that's been suggested about the brief career of George Mills as an author?

Who knows?

But there may be some clues in his marriage to Lady Dorothy, a childless union that was cut short after what must have been a roller-coaster period in both of their lives.

And we'll look at all of that next time—unless something else comes up!

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