Monday, February 10, 2014

Jackets Required

It seems that skipping an entire year, as I did in 2012, brought new life to The Rap Sheet’s previously annual Best Crime Fiction Covers competition. You may recall that our 2010 rivalry was something of a sensation, drawing 1,039 votes. By comparison, the 2011 face-off registered a measly 359 votes. But this year’s contest, announced on January 27 and lasting for most of two weeks, attracted a record 1,329 votes, spread among 15 contenders. Many of those ballots were registered in the closing days, as at least a couple of people (yeah, you know who you are) lobbied on Facebook and elsewhere for additional backing.

In the end, it turned out to be a remarkably tight race, with four book fronts each accumulating more than 10 percent of all the ballots cast. Even before the poll closed last Friday evening, though, it seemed obvious which challenger would come out ahead: the jacket from Linda L. Richards’ third Kitty Pangborn historical mystery, Death Was in the Blood (Five Star). It finally racked up 203 votes, or 15.27 percent of the total count.

That novel’s arresting black and white and red-all-over jacket was created by David Middleton, an illustrator and art director based in the Vancouver, British Columbia, area. For those who haven’t read it yet, Death Was in the Blood finds Pangborn--a spirited young former debutante now struggling to make it in Depression-era Los Angeles as the “Girl Friday” to hard-drinking gumshoe Dexter Theroux--going over her boss’ head to take on the job of bodyguarding Flora Woodruff, an industrialist’s equestrienne daughter, who hopes (against great odds) to compete in the 1932 Olympic Games. Since horses and “horse-napping” are so integral to this yarn’s plot, it is no wonder that the image of a steed figures prominently in Middleton’s design.

(Click on any of the covers in this post for an enlargement.)

“Some of the original roughs for the Death Was in the Blood cover sported a lovely piece of art deco equine statuary,” Middleton told me when I inquired about his process of developing this novel’s façade. “Though the imagery was wonderfully bold and evocative, we felt they were a bit to literal. The idea for what became the final cover came almost as an afterthought. For the cover of a detective novel, the image and idea of the smoking gun is somewhat cliché. Even so, I thought if I could combine it with the horse imagery, I might be able to go beyond that cliché. The original rough was the gun with the smoke being just a flat, hazy outline of a horse head. The publisher suggested that they might like to see something a little more real, and I took that suggestion more to heart than perhaps was meant. The hardest part was making smoke look like a horse head. That took some doing, but I was quite pleased with the result.”

Obviously, Rap Sheet readers agree with that sentiment.

(I should note here that Middleton happens to be author Richards’ longtime partner. In addition, he’s the art director of January Magazine, with which I have an editing connection. After I realized that Death Was in the Blood would number among this year’s Best Crime Fiction Covers nominees, I refrained from inviting either David or Linda to participate as judges, though they had been involved in previous contests; I wanted to avoid any conflict of interest that might taint the survey results.)

Earning second-place kudos in our recent poll--with 194 votes, or 14.6 percent of the total--is David Gordon’s Mystery Girl (New Harvest). A “darkly comic thriller,” it stars unemployed used-book store salesperson and failed “experimental novelist” Sam Kornberg, who accepts a job as the assistant to a morbidly obese and perhaps round-the-bend L.A. private investigator, only to be assigned to tail a captivating but enigmatic woman with whom he soon enough becomes infatuated--and who leads him into the most tangled of murder cases.

The conception of Mystery Girl’s dust jacket is credited to Lynn Buckley, who worked as an art director at publishers Random House and Farrar, Straus and Giroux before becoming a freelance book designer. (You can see several more of her covers here.) However, the sexy keyhole artwork central to this novel front comes from the portfolio of Gil Elvgren, an American commercial illustrator most fondly remembered for his myriad pin-up girl paintings, once prominent on wall calendars. (That was in the age before Playboy made female nudity commonplace, back when Elvgren and his colleagues could offer the image of a scantily clothed lovely or a pretty woman changing a car tire, and in both instances send a young man’s heart racing.) Elvgren titled this classic image “Peek-a-View,” and I understand that it appeared originally on a 1940 calendar distributed by the Louis F. Dow Company, a publisher for which Elvgren created some 60 works, beginning in the late 1930s. According to this report, in the fall of 2012, “Peek-a-View” was sold at auction for an impressive $101,500. You can enjoy that painting, minus the rather whimsical title typography imposed atop it for Gordon’s novel, here.

Third place in this year’s rivalry belongs to Norwegian by Night, the debut novel by Derek B. Miller. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s U.S. edition of Norwegian, displayed on the right, was designed by Brian Moore, employing a stock photograph by Françoise Lacroix. It’s rather spare and quirky in appearance, giving no visual hint of the exhilarating yarn that unravels behind the cover, and the positioning of its title and author credit initially seems poorly balanced--all very unlike the ominous British edition of this same novel, which won the Crime Writers’ Association’s 2013 John Creasey Dagger award for best new crime writer of the year. However, the silhouette here of a man standing beside a child out of whose head seem to grow horns perfectly reflects one of the novel’s more playful aspects.

I’m very pleased to see Norwegian by Night score high in this Rap Sheet poll, because it ranked among my favorite novels of last year. As I explained in my 2013 wrap-up post for Kirkus Reviews, the tale follows Sheldon “Donny” Horowitz,
a retired, widowed and Jewish watch repairman living well out of his element. His beloved granddaughter, Rhea, has moved him from New York City to Oslo to be with her and her new Norwegian husband, Lars. She fears that Sheldon--congenitally insolent and cranky in often comic measures--is fast slipping into dementia, since he claims to have been a sniper in the Korean War, rather than a mere file clerk. But after a Kosovar war criminal murders Sheldon’s neighbor and tries to take her son, it falls to our octogenarian philosopher-hero to flee with that boy, dodging cops and killers and, if disaster doesn’t intervene, finally deliver himself from the guilt he’s borne for his own son’s death. Ripe with memories of wars long ago fought and regrets insurmountable, this is a remarkably moving, memorable debut thriller.
Last but certainly not least, we come to the fourth-place finisher in this contest: the cover of Complex 90 (Titan), by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins, which drew 142 votes, or 10.68 percent of the total. Bold sans-serif lettering is all-important here, having been arranged within the sharp structural lines of what I assume is New York’s Empire State Building and another old structure that may or may not, in fact, be located nearby. (It’s amazing what can be accomplished these days with graphics-editing programs.) The emphasis on imposing gray stonework lends this image a distinctly urban character, and it contrasts elegantly with the yellow and white type. This cover comes from the South London-based design firm Amazing15, and is the second of three fronts the firm has concocted for Titan, as that publisher has released P.I. Mike Hammer novels that were begun long ago by Spillane and completed more recently by his friend Collins. (The other two can be seen here.)

The 18th Hammer outing, Complex 90--a follow-up to The Girl Hunters (1961)--was started in the early 1960s, and even announced for future publication back then. However, it didn’t make it to print till 2013--the fifth novel Collins has finished for Spillane since the latter author passed away in 2006. It imagines Spillane’s “hard-boiled, pre-Age of Aquarius detective” signing on to bodyguard a conservative U.S. senator as he travels to the Soviet Union in 1964 on a fact-finding mission. While there, Hammer is arrested by the KGB on trumped-up charges, later escapes amid a deadly shoot-out, and is followed to Manhattan for reasons that seem clear to nobody but the “Reds.” Assessing this novel for the Barnes & Noble Review, Charles Taylor remarked on how “Collins brings Spillane’s voice and milieu into even sharper relief” and added that this, like their previous collaborations, is “a love song to a New York City of nightclubs and Broadway columnists and delis and bars where you’re welcomed as a regular, a world that was fading even as Spillane was writing.”

And if you’re interested in which front among this year’s 15 contestants finished in fifth place, it was Stephen King’s Joyland, with an original cover painting by Glen Orbik. It amassed 76 votes (or 5.72 percent of the total). See the full poll results here.

Let me say thank you to everyone who took part in this survey. The big turnout makes me hopeful that the Best Crime Fiction Covers of 2014 face-off will be similarly popular. I’ve already begun gathering potential contenders! If, over the next 10 months, you spot any crime, mystery, and thriller book fronts that you think deserve inclusion, please send an e-mail note here, letting me know about them.

1 comment:

Barry Knister said...

For indie writers responsible for their own covers, this discussion/analysis is useful. Thank you.