Written by J. Kingston Pierce
When many people think of top-quality book jackets in the crime-fiction field, their minds turn immediately to the provocatively illustrated fronts of the mid-20th century. You know, the ones by artists such as Robert McGinnis, Norman Saunders, Ernest Chiriaka, and Victor Kalin. The ones that showed men with devilry blazing in their eyes and pistols in their paws, alleyways crawling with bent-nosed thugs, and curvaceous women with impossibly long legs. The sorts of covers that novelist Max Allan Collins once said represented “a wonderful golden age where utter sleaze meets genuine artistry.”
But crime novels didn’t shed all of their cleverness and captivation with the shift from painted covers to photographic ones in the late 1960s.
Typographical innovations, graphics-editing programs, and advances in printing technology give today’s designers tools that their forerunners of 50 years ago didn’t have. Those tools alone cannot turn mediocre concepts into brilliant ones, and they don’t alter the fundamental value of these jackets. As Peter Mendelsund, the associate art director for publisher Alfred A. Knopf, puts it: “Our job is still to take a book...and make it look attractive enough that you won’t be embarrassed to be seen enjoying it on a subway.” However, with the right mix of creative knack, eye for commercial appeal, and talent for pushing extraordinary ideas past dubious marketing departments, designers can still deliver eye-catching covers.
Glenn O’Neill, the deputy art director at Random House UK, isn’t pleased with the modern tendency of publishers to offer books that resemble one another, right down to their use of stock agency photos and shadowy, running figures. “When the exact same images duplicate on books,” he says, “it may well suggest the writing is also inter- changeable, [it’s] therefore a bad thing.”
It’s unlikely O’Neill would be accused of wielding a cookie cutter in his cover scheme for the hardback edition of Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection (2009). With its illustration of a human eye (evoking the classic Pinkerton National Detective Agency logo), surrounded by graphical elements (clocks, old-fashioned keys, fingerprints, etc.) that he says were “inspired by American noir but with a surreal twist,” Manual was among a flurry of recent books to have its artwork printed directly on the board binding, rather on a slick dust jacket. Such a “naked cover” gave Berry’s otherworldly story—about a reluctant detective pursuing his inaugural investigation with help from a highly flawed handbook—a distinctive character in both appearance and feel.
“The intention behind the design,” O’Neill explains, “particularly the scraperboard eye motif [commissioned from the illustrator Bill Sanderson], was to imply mystery but also a disquieting sense that ‘something is wrong here.’... It would be disingenuous, however, not to acknowledge that the jacket is meant to suggest the actual green detective manual referred to within the book; but it’s been developed into, I hope, a more desirable object, with gold and black foil to embellish.”
Of course, a crime novel front doesn’t require such intricate details to be arresting. Consider Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind (2005), which finds a frail 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes living in post-World War II Sussex, keeping bees and struggling with his declining faculties, as he reminisces about the long-ago case of an oft-disappearing wife. That book’s face, created for Doubleday by Michael J. Windsor, featured rather delicate title type and below that, what looked like the crumbling edges of old paper. But it was the central image that caught one’s eye: the close-up of a bee’s posterior, hinting at Holmes’ apiarian pastime.
Similarly, it was the pronounced imagery on the cover of Tom Rob Smith’s first novel, Child 44 (2008)—conceived for Grand Central Publishing by Anne Twomey—that made it so striking. The sharp contrast between the red field at the top, the embossed and white-shadowed title, and the black-and-white composite image at the bottom of a man following silent railroad tracks combined in an elegant reflection of Smith’s bleak and startling thriller, set in the Soviet Union during the mid-20th century.
And Will Staehle’s design for Twelve/Hatchette of The Sherlockian (2010), a debut work by Graham Moore, spoke boldly in the genre’s most iconic language. To introduce this yarn about a modern search for Arthur Conan Doyle’s missing diary and a parallel probe, by Holmes’ creator himself, into the deaths of three suffragettes in 1900, Staehle gave us an immediate reference to Holmes in the use of a pipe, upended like a question mark, with a splotch of blood for the dot. That spot was actually a cut-out in the jacket, exposing part of a scarlet profile of Holmes on the board behind.
Inventive employment of typefaces exert their own power and appeal. When she was looking for typographical solutions to the front of George Dawes Green’s Ravens (2009), Diane Luger, executive art director at Grand Central Publishing, says she “noticed that the ‘V’ letterform [in the book’s title] took on the shape of a raven in flight, and we moved forward from there. We looked at overlaying the title treatment over a photograph of a suburban street scene, to tell more of a story—but it lost its impact, proving that less is more.” The severe black-and-white result serves well Green’s chilling, twisted tale about drifters hoping to bilk a rural Georgia family of their lottery winnings.
Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich’s design for the hardcover jacket of Delacorte’s The Vanishing of Katharina Linden (2010), by UK-born Belgian author Helen Grant, could easily have slipped from clever to gimmicky, but it did not. The silhouette of a cat, filled with heavily vertical title type, nicely embodied this haunting story about an 11-year-old girl whose classmate vanishes from a Grimm’s fairy tale-themed parade float, provoking talk of the supernatural and witches assuming feline form.
One couldn’t help being drawn, as well, to the wrapper on Viking’s Faithful Place (2010), Irish author Tana French’s third novel. Designed by Jen Wang, with artwork by Viktor Koen, this front combined the likeness of an old, overgrown building wall with lettering broken and obscured by peeling paint. The results seemed almost too soothing to represent this mystery about forbidden love, sibling rivalries, and sins of the fathers being visited upon the next generation. Yet the neglect shown toward that wall echoed the familial fractures teased open in French’s narrative.
With so many crime novels demanding reader attention in bookstores, it’s not enough anymore for covers to simply be different; they have to look “wicked cool and awesome,” as Knopf art director Mendelsund jokes. He has a reputation for delivering such work. Mendelsund created the swirling fronts for the first two US releases of Stieg Larsson’s thrillers, as well as the less-subtle, silver-metalized jacket for the third book—all great departures from the European covers with their sexy women and dragon-shaped tattoos. He was also responsible for the eerie skull-in-dots jacket on Adam Ross’ Mr. Peanut (2010), the poignant story of a man obsessed with his wife’s demise.
However, Mendelsund’s predilection for novelty may have been demonstrated best in his work on Joe R. Lansdale’s Leather Maiden (2008). Lansdale’s tale focuses on a scandalized journalist who returns to his small Texas hometown and cracks a bad can of worms by digging into a cold-case murder. “That book has almost a horror kind of feel to it,” says Mendelsund, so he developed a black-and-white photo cover showing a woman’s upreaching hand and a small title card stapled to her palm. The only color is a bit of crimson around that staple. Although Mendelsund expected resistance to his concept from Knopf’s marketing minions, “the only feedback I got was that we should give the image a manicure,” which he accomplished with Photoshop.
“Different” would also describe the wraparound on Japanese author Shuichi Yoshida’s Villain (2010). To attract readers to this gritty story about a young insurance saleswoman’s strangulation, Mendelsund’s colleague at Knopf, Chip Kidd, gave us the illustration of a handgun shaped from the major bones of the human body—an image that looks like something from a voodoo ceremony, something taboo. Again, there’s minimal color, and the understated headline type lets this “bone gun” take center stage.
Curiously, some of the most distinctive covers on shelves these days don’t look new at all. The seductive woman that Richie Fahey painted for the front of Megan Abbott’s 2007 Simon & Schuster release, The Song Is You, based on a true-life missing person case from Los Angeles in 1949, could have fit just as well on a Gold Medal paperback crime novel from the Eisenhower era.
Back then, though, the illustration would also have featured a gun. And you would have seen the woman’s legs. They would have been spectacular.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #118.