INSIGHTS: Christie's WWII "Phoenix" Continental Paperbacks
Updated: Jul 16
In a prior article, we wrote that collectors of Agatha Christie’s works need to be familiar with the publisher "The Albatross". They were one of the earliest paperback publishers, and while based in Europe published English language books. From 1933-1939, they published 14 Agatha Christie titles – all of which were the true first paperbacks. But then The Albatross suddenly stopped printing ... why - well Germany's invasion of France in early 1940 was accompanied by their ban on the printing of any book considered un-German. This included Agatha Christie and the other Western authors The Albatross published. While there were two Christie reprints after the end of World War II under The Albatross brand, for Christie collectors it is the 1933-39 period that is relevant. For more insights into these books click here.
Agatha Christie Finds Neutral Territory:
So it naturally raises the question as to whether anyone continued publishing Christie’s books in English on the European continent during World War II? And the answer is someone did – Scherz Verlag. In fact this publisher continued publishing many of the authors The Albatross has been printing. The books were of similar quality, with easy reading font, high quality paper and stiff soft covers. Their first title, volume #1, was A.J. Cronin’s “The Keys of the Kingdom” published in 1942.
It was perhaps no mistake that their brand was ‘Phoenix’. Yet another bird (Albatross & Penguin being the others), but in this case a publisher rising from the ashes to resurrect continental editions despite Nazi controls across the rest of Europe. Below are the various ways the logo was presented in their mystery books - the two versions found on the title page and the rear cover logo.
Their first Christie title was published in 1943, which created a three-year absence from the market for her continental readers. Consistent with The Albatross they were shod in stiff orange covers.
Alfred Scherz completed an apprenticeship as a bookseller in the GA Bäschlin bookshop in Berne from 1919 to 1922. After the owner's death in 1922, he went to Paris and London for further training. From 1924 to 1926, Alfred Scherz was the first employee in the Rascher publishing house in Zurich. In 1926 Alfred Scherz acquired the bookstore he’d apprenticed at - GA Bäschlin - which he renamed "Alfred Scherz & Co.". In 1938 Alfred Scherz started publishing the first books and founded the "Alfred Scherz Verlag" on October 1, 1939. Verlag translates as 'publishing'). Over the years, the publisher focused on British and American authors, including Agatha Christie, D.H. Lawrence, Ellery Queen, Oscar Wilde and J.D. Carr.
It is unclear how Scherz secured the rights to publish Christie books but with the fall of France and The Albatross to Nazi control, an opportunity clearly arose. With Scherz’s operations based in neutral Switzerland, he was free to publish who he wanted. However, it is unlikely that their books had much circulation outside of Switzerland which makes them particularly challenging to find as print runs were probably very small. In fact, they appear scarcer than The Albatross books of the 1930s.
The Christie Titles Published by Phoenix:
There were eight Christie books published by Phoenix Books in Berne between 1943 and 1946. Of these one was certainly the true first paperback, while six were the first paperbacks for general sale (i.e. not an Armed Services editions), though some may have actually preceded the Services editions.
The original books published in Switzerland will state printed in Switzerland on the copyright page. They also state “Scherz Phoenix Books” on the top of the front cover and either “Alfred Scherz Publishers Berne” (earlier titles) or “Phoenix Publ. Co Ltd. Berne” (later titles) on the bottom of the front cover.
Just like The Albatross books, these were not to be introduced into the British Empire or the U.S.A. First edition printings generally will state so and the rear inside cover will show a list of titles in the series only up to the volume number in hand.
#13: Sad Cypress, Scherz Phoenix Books, Berne, Switzerland (1943).
Collins also published their Services Edition (exclusively for distribution amongst the Armed Forces during WW II) in 1943, though the sequence of who published first is unclear. This Phoenix edition certainly represents the first paperback for general sale, if not the true first.
Later first-thus English language paperbacks were the Dell paperback (US) in 1946 and Pan (UK) in 1954.
#19: The Body in the Library, Scherz Phoenix Books, Berne, Switzerland (1943).
Shown here is the later printing, when Phoenix moved operations to Paris after the war ended. Note how the header and footer on the front cover are different than Sad Cypress above. This is the easiest way to identify later printings. The correct first printing has the same cover elements as Sad Cypress above.
As with Sad Cypress, Collins published a Services Edition in 1943. Again, it is unclear which was published first though this Phoenix printing certainly represents the first paperback for general sale. Later first-thus English language paperbacks were the Dell paperback (US) in 1946 and Penguin (UK) in 1953.
#22: Five Little Pigs, Scherz Phoenix Books, Berne, Switzerland (1944).
This was the true first paperback of this title since the Collins Services edition was published in the following year (1945).
Later country-specific first paperbacks were Dell Books (US) in 1948 and Pan (UK) in 1953.
#30: Easy to Kill, Scherz Phoenix Books, Berne, Switzerland (1944).
Since the month of publication is unknown, it is unclear if this Phoenix printing came before or after the Collins White Circle printing in the UK which was circa January 1944.
The first US paperback was the 1945 Pocketbook edition. It is interesting that Phoenix chose to use the title the Daily Express used when the story was serialised not the title Collins used for the hardback – Murder is Easy.
#33: The Moving Finger, Scherz Phoenix Books, Berne, Switzerland (1945).
The true first paperback edition was the Collins White Circle Services Edition, 1943. However, this Phoenix edition certainly represents the first paperback for general sale.
Later first-thus English language paperbacks were the Avon (US) and Pan (UK) editions – both in 1948.
#42: N or M?, Scherz Phoenix Books, Berne, Switzerland (1946).
The true first edition was either the English or Indian Collins White Circle Services Edition – both published in 1943. Otherwise, this Phoenix edition certainly represents the first paperback for general sale. Later first-thus English language paperbacks include the Dell (US) in 1947 and Pan (UK) in 1959.
#57: Evil under the Sun, Scherz Phoenix Books, Berne, Switzerland (1946).
The true first edition was the US Pocketbook edition, published in January 1945. This Phoenix edition would be the second paperback edition, with Collins only printing a White Circle edition in 1950.
Note: all the spines were striped with the volume number, Agatha Christie or Christie and the book title.
#69: Towards Zero, Scherz Phoenix Books, Berne, Switzerland (1946).
The true first edition was the Collins White Circle Services Edition published in 1945. Otherwise, this Phoenix edition certainly represents the first paperback for general sale.
Later first-thus English language paperbacks include Pocket Books (US) in 1947 and Pan (UK) in 1948. Of note, this book now references their French operations as follows: Scherz & Hallwag, Berne (Switzerland) / Paris. But this 1946 first edition was printed in Berne as noted on the cover.
Coloured Coded Covers:
Similar to The Albatross paperbacks, Scherz Phoenix also published books with various coloured covers based upon the type of novel contained within. Below you can see they retained the same colour-coding based on the author / novel type.
For Scherz Phoenix, ‘Extra Volumes’ (as above left - noted under the volume number) were larger books that sold for 5.50 Swiss Francs, while the rest of the books sold for 4.50 Swiss Francs.
Later Editions Published in France:
It is important to note that all of these books appear to have been reprinted after the war, when Scherz established operations in Paris, clearly keen to sell these English language titles to a broader market. It is fairly easy to identify these later editions. As shown in the image for #19 The Body in the Library above, expect to see the bottom of the front cover state “Phoenix Publ. Co Ltd. Paris.”, the copyright page to say “Scherz & Hallwag, Berne, Paris, London” as well as “Printed in France.”
On these French reprints there will generally be a complete list of all 86 books in their series, including all the Christie titles for sale through #69 Towards Zero in the rear.
German Language Editions:
In addition to publishing books in English, Alfred Scherz also published in Switzerland first editions in German of Agatha Christie's Murder in Easy (Das Sterben in Wychwood) and Sad Cypress (Morphium) – both in 1943. These were clearly for the German-speaking market in Switzerland as Christie books were still banned for publication inside Germany at this time. These Scherz books had a very different design element.
After the war, Scherz Verlag became known for their German language books – now printed in Germany and with a distinctive black and white striped cover. The numbering sequence restarted at “1”, which was Agatha Christie’s “The Hollow”, titled “Das Eulenhaus”, published in 1947. A few examples are below showing the standard design in the late 1940s and 1950s that Scherz employed.
Of note the sequential numbering of their books in German ended in 2004, with volume 2025 which was Agatha Christie’s “Towards Zero”, or “Kurz vor Mitternacht”. Whether a coincidence or not, this was the last Christie title published in their English language Swiss publications too… maybe because the German title literally translates as ‘Just Before Midnight’. I like to imagine it was consciously chosen to imply the end of an era.
It is possible many collectors are not very familiar with the Phoenix paperbacks are prices are still reasonable despite many of them being the first publicly available English language paperbacks. However, the challenge is actually finding them as the few that are out there generally remain on European or Eastern European only online sites which are not as mainstream of some of the global channels. As noted earlier, I presume the print runs were very small and while the editions published in France show up more frequently, the original Swiss first editions are far more scarce. If these books appeal to you, buy when you can as prices will likely rise as familiarity grows with these books. For now expect to pay up to €50 for a very good quality copy. Common defects are spine loss and damage to the soft board covers, both of which may detract from the value. These books were not issued with jackets.
Readers Insights Welcome:
It has been hard to fully research this publisher as very little seems to have been written about Scherz Phoenix and this article has taken far too long already to write! Thus reader input is most welcome to provide any missing insights or depth, plus the one image I seek. Please contact me at email@example.com .
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As always Happy Hunting.