Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Back to Fronts

Polling in The Rap Sheet’s “Best Crime Fiction Covers of 2009” contest closed at midnight last evening. Participation was more than double what we saw in 2008, which may be attributed to better publicizing of the competition or perhaps just the fact that this blog has witnessed a steadily climbing readership over the last 12 months. And the rivalry for top honors among our dozen nominees this year was especially heated, with two or three book jackets in close contention during the survey’s two-week run.

In any event, we can now announce the results. With 634 ballots having been cast, the front of Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection came out in the lead with 18.9 percent of the vote. Designed for Penguin Press by Glenn O’Neill, this novel is one among a trendy flurry of books to have its cover artwork printed directly on the board binding, rather than being swathed in a slick dust jacket. Such a “naked cover” gives Berry’s otherworldly yarn (about a reluctant detective pursuing his first investigation with help--more or less--from a highly flawed manual) a distinctive character not only in it the way it looks, but in the way it feels. Bill Sanderson’s presumably Pinkerton-inspired illustration of a human eye, bordered by clocks, old-fashioned keys, fingerprints, hand prints, and less distinct, shadowy elements, gives The Manual of Detection immediate mysterious distinction. This may be one of the simplest yet most eye-catching crime novel covers we’ve seen in many a moon, a commercial asset to a debut work that might not otherwise have drawn such appreciative attention. It is too bad that Penguin has decided to go in a very different direction with the paperback edition of Berry’s book, which is due out late next month. I hope we’ll see more of Glenn O’Neill’s covers on crime novels in the future.

One thing that surprised me in looking over this year’s contest results was that neither of the two deliberately “retro” covers--those on Mark Coggins’ The Big Wake-Up (illustrated by Owen Smith) and Linda L. Richards’ Death Was in the Picture (with artwork by Richie Fahey)--managed to top the 10-percent vote hurdle. Could it be that readers are tiring of cover designs that plunder the past for their inspiration? Or is it merely that those two examples failed to excite readers as others have done? Personally, I like both of those covers, as I do the fronts of Rennie Airth’s third John Madden mystery novel, The Dead of Winter, and Joe R. Lansdale’s Vanilla Ride (the final Chip Kidd-designed jacket for which is here). But this poll is supposed to be about what readers like, not what I like or what the other judges of this year’s covers preferred.

And in the end, Rap Sheet readers were more drawn to jackets bearing sharper imagery and straightforward typography. Collecting second-place honors in our survey, with 17.7 percent of the vote, is the front of Ravens (Grand Central Publishing), George Dawes Green’s first novel since The Juror (1995). Stark in presentation, with the book’s title serving as the main artwork (and nicely incorporating the profile of a raven on the wing), this is a standout cover among rivals that depend for their attraction on greater color and complexity. (One of our Best Covers of 2009 judges, Kevin Burton Smith of The Thrilling Detective Web Site, proclaimed: “It looks like someone in some art department grew testicles this year, after all.”) That artistic severity serves well Green’s periodically chilling and twisted tale about a couple of drifters planning to bilk a rural Georgia family of their lottery winnings. The cover of Ravens, by the way, was designed by Diane Luger.

Not quite so stark, but certainly bold in conception, is our third-place winner (with 14.3 percent): the British cover of Jonathan Rabb’s Shadow and Light, the sequel to Rosa (one of January Magazine’s favorite crime novels of 2005) and the second installment in a projected trilogy of early 20th-century thrillers. In this novel, Nikolai Hoffner, a half-German, half-Jewish detective inspector with Berlin’s criminal investigations unit, mixes it up with right-wing militiamen and pornographers as he probes the 1927 murder of a prominent film producer. The UK cover for Shadow and Light was designed by Paul Rogers; and while it isn’t as dramatic as the Fritz Lang-ish proposal he originally took to publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, it’s still a good deal more eye-catching than Charlotte Strick’s too-dark artwork for the American edition of Rabb’s latest book.

Finally, picking up a 12.6 percent share of this year’s vote, is the jacket from The Killing Circle, by Andrew Pyper. The novel focuses on a widower and aspiring author as he becomes involved with a young woman in his new local writing group, whose frightening account of a girl being stalked by a killer called the Sandman may be more autobiographical than she lets on--and definitely brings the protagonist more trouble than he ever imagined. Its uncomplicated but nonetheless powerful cover was done by designer Henry See, who explains in his blog that “A sheet of writing paper with a delicate semi-circle paper-cut wound came to mind as I was talking with the editor. With a bit of blood pooling up behind it and beginning to run.” After minimal changes, that idea became the front of the finished book. A work audacious in its simplicity.

So there you have it, folks, another year’s worth of noteworthy crime novel covers. We’ll be keeping our eyes peeled in 2010, hoping to identify still more intriguing and daring examples of what can be accomplished in this genre. If you spot any jackets you think ought to be in contention, please don’t hesitate to let us know about them.

READ MORE:My Favorite Book Covers of 2009,” by Joseph Sullivan (The Book Design Review).

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