Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Best Foot Forward

Participation in The Rap Sheet’s recent poll to identify “the best crime novel cover of 2008” was down significantly from last year’s survey. That might be the result of our opening the competition at the end of December, rather than at the beginning, when readers were too exhausted from holiday shopping and party-going to coherently determine questions of art and typography.

But no matter. The rivalry this time around was quite lively, with a pretty tight result. After all the votes were counted among a dozen nominees, the American cover of Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44, designed for Grand Central Publishing by Anne Twomey, came out on top with 16 percent support. That novel’s cover is unquestionably striking, when you’re browsing bookstore shelves. The sharp contrast between the red field at the top of the jacket, the embossed and white-shadowed title, and the black-and-white composite background image at the bottom of a man walking along silent railroad tracks combine in an elegant reflection of Smith’s bleak but captivating thriller, set in the Soviet Union during Joseph Stalin’s mid-20th-century regime. The U.S. cover is reminiscent of its British counterpart (from Simon & Schuster UK); but as far as I’m concerned, the former’s illustrative contrasts and bold type are far superior to the British jacket’s surrealistic title concept and lighter byline at the top.

According to a brief bio on the Web, Anne Twomey, who “started her book cover design career at Pocket Books” a quarter-century ago, now “oversees the cover designs of over 300 books a year” for Hachette Book Group USA, of which Grand Central is one imprint. I’ll be looking for more of her work in the future.

Capturing second-place honors in our competition (with 15 percent of the vote) is Death Was the Other Woman, a historical private-eye novel penned by Rap Sheet contributor (and January Magazine editor) Linda L. Richards. Because of that connection, I thought for a long time about whether this jacket should be ineligible to enter, and finally resolved that it was just too good not to be considered. After all, the jacket illustration was done for St. Martin’s Minotaur/Thomas Dunne by Richie Fahey, who have also given us the covers of Megan Abbott’s recent novels (Die a Little, The Song Is You, and Queenpin). According to a brief online profile,
New York City photographer Richie Fahey paints on his photographs in a cold water flat, surrounded by his inspiration: a towering collection of 1930s-1960s musty paperbacks and detective pulp. With the help of a postwar hobbyist’s manual, Photo Oil Coloring for Fun and Profit, he learned to transform black and white photographs into glorious color by dabbling with pigments on snapshots from the ’40s.
For the front of Death Was the Other Woman, Fahey created the exquisite retro image of a woman--presumably, Richards’ fictional heroine, Kitty Pangborn--almost slyly armed and sidling up next to what can only be the desk of her boss, prodigiously tippling Depression-era gumshoe Dexter J. Theroux. The illustration offers all the noirish potential of an Ida Lupino flick. Interestingly, as Richards has explained in her personal blog, this was Fahey’s second shot at creating the Other Woman jacket. The original got the attitude right, but the era wrong. Fortunately, his second try was a charm.

Fahey (other examples of whose work you can see here) has also created the cover for Richards’ forthcoming second Kitty Pangborn mystery, Death Was in the Picture, featuring melodramatic artwork that’s perfectly in tune with the story’s glamorous Hollywood backdrop.

Finally, sliding into our recent poll’s No. 3 spot (with 13 percent of the vote) is the front of Joe R. Lansdale’s Leather Maiden, a thriller described as “a brash amalgam of suspense, raw humor, and mystery that unfolds in the vividly shadowy lowlands of eastern Texas.” This novel’s front cover is one of several predominately black-and-white jackets to capture our attention last year. Designed for publisher Alfred A. Knopf by Peter Mendelsund, the work is dramatically understated--and all the more powerful because of it. What you see is the hand of a woman (Is she 65 years old, or 25? It’s damnably hard to tell), her nail polish smoothly applied and shiny. You just know it’s a dazzling red, even though it has been stripped of color in this photograph. In fact, the only color anywhere in the shot belongs to a wee bit of blood on the palm, brought forth by the staple in the subject’s skin, holding the book’s title card in place. Wow! Grace and gore all in one. A captivating exercise in artistic restraint that is impossible to pass by in a store without drawing one’s curiosity. I have to admit, when I received a copy of Leather Maiden in the mail, I had to sit for a few minutes and take in the complexity of its starkness. It’s a fabulous example of making the most of less.

I look forward to seeing what the crime-fiction book racks have to offer in 2009. We’ll be back here 11 months from now, asking you to judge the impact of another selection of jackets. Meanwhile, if you happen upon a crime novel front that you think deserves our attention, please don’t hesitate to let us know about it.

READ MORE:And the Results Are In: Your Favorites of 2008,” by Joseph Sullivan (The Book Design Review).

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