The wonderful librarian at Monash University’s Rare Books (Stephen Perrin) has shared with me just a few of the many ‘John Mystery’ publications in the collection.
John Mystery was an Australian children’s publishing phenomenon. He published hundreds of small, cheap books for children during the late 1930s and 1940s, for very young children (his Fairies and Fairies ABC, for example, are directed at pre-readers), to more complex tales for teen readers, such as the short stories contained in Buried Treasure, including ‘The Death Clock’, ‘Monte Christo’, ‘Aladdin’, ‘Ocean Gold’, ‘The Gold Bug’, ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’.
According to a news item that appeared in the Daily Mercury (Mackay) on May 30, 1946, and which was based on an interview with the author, “A particular quality of John Mystery’s books parents will welcome is that they are fundamentally good. His stories outlaw evil, selfishness, and disrespect, while encouraging fairness and honesty, goodwill and friendship, correct speech, respect for law and order.” (p. 2)
The paper stock is cheap, and the covers flimsy thin card, but the covers are brightly covered, and each publication is packed to the brim with illustrations. Best of all, many issues have a letter from the author to his ‘cobbers’ in the back. These letters address his readers directly, sometimes quote from his fan-mail, and refer to current events (including occasional references to the ongoing war).
According to the short biography in Austlist, John Mystery was really Lester Basil Sinclair, born in New Zealand, who came to Australia during his teens, and joined the circus (yes, he really did run away to the circus!). He was a soldier at Gallipolli, and wrote a series of war poems and songs, but is most famous for the voluminous output of children’s works he published as ‘John Mystery’. He published out of a ‘castle’ in Sydney (Illawong), which he dubbed ‘Adventure Castle’. His second wife, Ellen Sinclair, was a food writer for the Australian Women’s Weekly, and probably helped out quite a bit with the enormous number of publications that Publicity Press (1938) Pty Ltd published.
Monash University have about 140 of John Mystery’s publications in their collection: he published many more, but they are highly ephemeral things. Many of them little more than over-sized chapbooks.
I thought you’d most like to read one of the letters to his cobbers from around 1943. But first, here’s a little snippet inserted into the front matter of Buried Treasure:
And now, for a letter from our illustrious author:
It is over five years now that we have been friends. Thank you so much for your letters–you know how much I love to have them–and also for the gifts you have sent me. Now, the letters you send to me are very private, and nobody knows about them except myself–but this year I had such a lovely gift from a Little Girl from Gympie, I feel I want to share it with all my cobbers. I know she won’t mind. This is the verse Shirley sent to me–
“There are always those who love us in their own particular way,
While the skies are bright above us, and success attends each day;
But the things that keep us going in the right path to the end,
Is the really truly knowing that a fellow has a friend.”
That’s how I think we all feel. The world is a happy place for me, because of my cobbers, and I like to think you are glad to have me for your friend. No matter what may happen, it does help to know that, as the verse says, “a fellow has a friend.”
Thank you for asking again and again for my books. If the book you want is not at your shop to-day, it may be there to-morrow. Soon, when the final Victory has been gained, and the dream of peace is a dream no longer, I will be able to write all the books for which you have asked. Until then–please keep enquiring at your book shop for the John Mystery book you want.
And now–to my new cobbers! Please, when you write to me, enclose a stamped, addressed envelope, and I would like to have a photograph of you, too, to put in my Giant Album. Don’t forget to remind me to send you five of the Lucky Beans from Jack’s Beanstalk, which I discovered in an old oak chest in my Castle. It is said they will help to bring you all kinds of Good Luck!
I shall be looking for your letters!
My Address is–
That’s all you need to put!
Juliet O’Conor’s ‘John Mystery and the Australian Book Trade’, which appeared in Explorations into Children’s Literature, Volume 22, Number 1. 2012: pp. 68-80; and,
Derrick Moor’s ‘John Mystery: The Nation’s Storyteller’ which appeared in La Trobe Library Journal, Spring Number 60. 1997: pp. 31-39.
Also, if you have access to it, Austlit have a fully digitised copy of John Mystery’s Buried Treasure.