Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Front of the Class

In 2007, The Rap Sheet began what we hope will be a long-enduring and annual tradition of asking readers to choose the year’s best crime novel cover. Several of us have been keeping track of the artwork that has graced this genre’s book jackets over the last 12 months, and we have finally winnowed down (from an original set of some three dozen candidates) what we believe are the 12 most distinguished covers produced in 2008. Undoubtedly, there will be readers who disagree with our selections, and say that other choices should have been made. Indeed, those of us who put this list together pushed our individual sets of contenders, and in the end none of us got everything he or she wanted. A few nominees were especially hard to set aside, but in the end, we arrived at a rundown of book jackets that work well in terms of artwork, typography, and message.

Two patterns can be discerned by looking over our choices for this year. They suggest not only something about our tastes in book design, but also trends in the business.

First, there are several principally black-and-white covers here, employing minimal typography. We hadn’t really noticed this as a trend, until we laid out all of our options end to end. Let me note it’s a stylistic inclination that we like very much. However, as Kevin Burton Smith, a longtime January Magazine contributor and the creator of The Thrilling Detective Web Site, wrote to me recently: “I shudder to think how bleak mystery bookstores will look once [this trend] catches on. And how many moody stock photos will be used again and again and again. And how that clean, simple typography look will soon disappear once the marketing departments realize how much clean, unobstructed space will be available to fill with copy.”

The second thing to notice is that two of the 12 candidates below (The Chinese Parrot, an Academy Chicago Publishers reissue of Earl Derr Biggers’ second Charlie Chan novel from 1926, and Linda L. Richard’s Death Was the Other Woman from St. Martin’s Minotaur) boast retro-pulp looks. This is a more obvious trend in the genre--and another one to be applauded, at least in the short-term. Paperback publisher Hard Case Crime has been a leader in the campaign to take crime fiction back to its mid-20th-century pulp days, featuring original illustrations by classic masters such as Robert McGinnis and more modern talents like Ricky Mujica on their book fronts. But other houses are now starting to pick up on the same style. Commissioning fresh artwork or photography is certainly a welcome development, especially when you consider how many publishers today are prepared to cheap out and employ already overused stock photography, rather than pay the higher cost of creating unique art for their covers. On the other hand, too much of a good thing is, well, too much, and there’s the possibility of excess in this turn toward pulpish illustrations. Let us hope there will not come a day when we crave stock photos, just as a change from rack after rack of McGinnis rip-offs.

With those preliminaries out of the way, let’s get to the real purpose here: choosing 2008’s most accomplished crime-fiction cover. Of the dozen contenders below, just two--Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice (part of a series of reissued James Bond novels from Penguin UK) and Howard Engel’s East of Suez (from Penguin Canada)--come from beyond the U.S. borders. However, almost half were written by non-American wordsmiths. Included here are detective novels, historical thrillers, and both series works and standalones.

We’ve made our choices, now it’s your turn. After studying the nominated book covers, go to the end of this post to vote for your favorites. You can choose as many jackets as you wish. We will leave this cover contest open for the next week and a half, until midnight on Friday, January 9. Then we’ll report the results.

Oh, and if you think we have missed mentioning some other handsome crime-fiction cover from the last year, please let us know in the Comments section. Just be sure to include a URL with your suggestion, so readers can see the alternative jacket for themselves.


DICK adler said...

Love all your choices, but my heart still belongs to THE AGE OF DREAMING.


DICK ADLER said...


Scott Parker said...

I'm going with Child 44. At once, the cover gives the bleak impression of a Soviet winter, isolation, desolation, and the encroaching red menace just waiting to crash down on the figure.

Walter A.P. Soethoudt said...

For me the best cover of the year is Toros & Torso's by Craig McDonald.


Megan Abbott's Die A Little had its UK publication this year and it's got great cover.

Corey Redekop said...

Really enjoy the Engel covers this year.

Bob Randisi said...

Don't like any of the ten. Sorry.


J. Kingston Pierce said...

Then, Bob, perhaps you'd like to suggest a crime novel cover from 2008 that you DO like.


John McFetridge said...

The Howard Engel is my favourite, but you left out the US cover of Declan Burke's The Big O.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Hey, John:

The cover of Burke's The Big O certainly has its attractions, but it didn't make the cut, because it's artwork is not original enough. See here:



Charles Ardai said...

Of this batch, THE FOURTH MAN is the one that made my heart leap most. I liked the Charlie Chan cover, too. It isn't fresh or novel, but it's a very nice, clean execution of an old style. DEATH WAS THE OTHER WOMAN is pure pastiche.

And if I may indulge in a bit of shamelessness here, I'd put MONEY SHOT or THE MAX up against any of them.

Mack said...

These are all great covers but I went with Child 44 for the same reasons Scott Parker mentioned previously.

Hard Case Crime's covers are terrific. In addition to Money Shot and The Max, I would nominate Ardai's own, Fifty-to-One.