Sunday, April 27, 2008

Book Covers We Love, #2

Title: The Gentle Axe, by R.N. Morris
Publisher: Penguin Books (U.S.), 2008
Designer: Blacksheep

One of the results of my visiting Vancouver, B.C., last weekend was that I finally picked up a finished copy of Roger (or “R.N.”) Morris’ A Vengeful Longing, which was released earlier this year in Britain, but won’t be available in the States until mid-June. Longing is of course Morris’ second historical mystery to employ as its protagonist Porfiry Petrovich, the St. Petersburg investigating magistrate who was introduced in Russian novelist’s Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866). Its predecessor, The Gentle Axe (or A Gentle Axe, as it was titled in the UK), ranked among my favorite crime novels of 2007.

In looking closely at A Vengeful Longing’s cover, I realize that it, like the front of Axe, was created for UK publisher Faber and Faber by a London design group called Blacksheep, which has been responsible in the past for the fronts of books by David Lawrence, Reg Gadney, R.S. Downie, and Graham Hurley. Both of these Morris jackets are particularly affecting, but The Gentle Axe remains my favorite. It also apparently won over the bright marketing folks at the U.S arm of Penguin, who chose to substitute Blacksheep’s design in place of a much more staid cover concept (by Gabrielle Wilson) that was featured on Penguin’s American hardcover edition of Axe. The cover above is of the U.S. paperback edition, released in March of this year.

It’s actually a composite of several images. The first is a stock shot from Seattle, Washington-based Getty Images, titled “Snowy entranceway to an estate near Saint Petersburg.” (To find the original photo, go to the Getty Images main Web page and type this shot’s catalogue code, “ngs0_4425,” into the Search box.) Unfortunately, the name of that estate isn’t given, but perhaps somebody more familiar than I with the historical architecture of St. Petersburg, Russia, can supply such information. In any event, the original shot shows a woman with some sort of bag in her right hand, walking calmly through the snow toward that manse, between precisely planted, parallel rows of trees. In Blacksheep’s slight refashioning, the woman has been removed, and in her place we see a running boy, trailed by blood-dappled footprints. This combination suggests that the story to be found within offers both pursuit and murder, as it certainly does. (Taglines on the front of the British hardcover edition--“St. Petersburg, 1867. Blood on the streets. Secrets in the shadows.”--were completely superfluous.)

Significant here, too, is the use of a simple, vertically oriented, sans-serif typeface for this book’s title. It pops out nicely (in part because it picks up the deep red of the blood spatters), and stands in notable contrast to the visual complexity of the Russian estate as well as to the smaller, serif-bearing type used elsewhere on this paperback cover. All in all, a successful combination of image and typography, attracting an audience in search of crime fiction with a dark but thoughtful demeanor.

British author Morris reports that he has at least two more Porfiry Petrovich novels in the works: A Razor Wrapped in Silk, which he says “draws heavily” on Dostoevsky’s 1869 novel, The Idiot; and what he describes as “[t]he final book in my intended quartet,” inspired by 1872’s The Devils (aka The Possessed). If those can maintain the quality and investigative intensity of this series’ first two installments, they should do well. Especially if Blacksheep is given the commission to design their covers.


Uriah Robinson said...

I found the UK edition cover of A Vengeful Longing was evocative of both the city and the period and had a hint of mystery.
I am certainly looking forward to reading numbers 3 and 4 in this series.
My review of A Vengeful Longing can be found at:

Josephine Damian said...

So many writers are forced to make due with awful book covers, but this one dazzles in its simplicity.

Loved it the first time I saw it on MySpace. I bought CRIME AND PUNISHMENT recently (I shamefully admit to never having read it) with the intention of reading THE GENTLE AXE after that.