2016 is more than a month and a half spent, but because this has been a remarkably busy time for me, I’m still wrapping up a couple of matters from last year. For instance, back in early January I posted The Rap Sheet’s roster of 20 nominees for Best Crime Fiction Cover of 2015, but only today can I finally announce the winners.
This is the eighth time we’ve asked our discriminating readers to choose which one, out of a group of mystery, crime, and thriller covers issued during a 12-month period, they found to be particularly eye-catching and handsome. (The first such survey was conducted back in 2007, but we skipped 2012 for reasons explained here.) In previous years the vote total has been somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500. But this time, things were rather different.
Generally, I set these polls up (through Polldaddy) with very few restrictions, allowing participants to select one or more book fronts on their first visit, and then perhaps come back on a later occasion to make their second thoughts known. I have not, in the past, prevented readers from voting more than once. I would like to believe that people are essentially honest, and that the stakes involved in this sort of informal canvassing in The Rap Sheet are not so important or life-changing that anyone would resort to ballot stuffing as a way to falsely drive up their numbers. Yet over the latest two-week survey period (and especially near its conclusion), there were occasions when the tallies for one or more books suddenly executed extraordinary jumps. And in the end, the vote total was an incredible 6,941—much higher than in previous years. I don’t believe that any book undeserving of acclaim wound up among the top five vote-getters, but this experience has made me reconsider my relaxed posture toward allowing people the opportunity to vote more than once.
With all of that said, let me now move on to our five winners. (Click on the covers below for enlargements.)
Having amassed a whopping 2,549 votes (or 36.75 percent of the total), this year’s first-place finisher is … Scratch the Surface (280 Steps), the opening installment in Illinois author Josh K. Stevens’ “pulp noir trilogy” about Deuce Walsh, “a former gangster trying to keep his past hidden in the middle of [the] nowhere Midwest.” (Stevens’ follow-up volumes are Delving Deeper, which reached booksellers last August, and To the Core, which is due out this coming April.) I wasn’t all that familiar with 280 Steps—an independent publisher headquartered in Oslo, Norway, of all places—and haven’t yet received any of its releases (which include both vintage and new works, by authors ranging from A.I. Bezzerides and Jonathan Ashley to Bill S. Ballinger and Eric Beetner). But I am definitely impressed with 280 Steps’ taste in cover illustrations.
As publisher Kjetil Hestvedt let me know in a recent e-mail note, Scratch the Surface’s front—with its minimalist, in-your-face illustration of a man (dare we guess it’s Walsh himself?) pointing a pistol toward what might be your right ear—represents the work of Risa Rodil, a young and “incredibly talented freelance designer who has designed most of our covers previously.” (She created all of the fronts for Stevens’ trilogy.) Separately, Rodil tells me she has a very collaborative association with 280 Steps. She says the imprint’s managers “provided me with a clear and specific direction of how they want[ed] the cover to look … My role [was] to translate their ideas visually. … For Scratch the Surface, after I submitted the initial design, they only asked for minor revisions … Such revisions included shadow and scale fixes for the face and the hand, and additional color scheme options.” The finished paperback boasts a sharp, distinctive façade that pops out from bookstore shelves cluttered with photographic covers, too many of which employ similar bland, stock imagery.
There’s nothing bland, though, about the photo front for the paperback release of Jamie Mason’s Monday’s Lie (Gallery), a novel about “a woman who digs into her unconventional past to confirm what she suspects: her husband isn’t what she thought he was.” A superior visual grabber to the earlier hardcover edition of Mason’s thriller, this reprint version—which took second place in The Rap Sheet’s cover contest (collecting 1,928 votes, or 27.78 percent of the total)—is credited to Lisa Litwack, the creative director at Gallery Books. Litwack’s work has earned her acclaim before. Her design for the 2015 edition of He Killed Them All: Robert Durst and My Quest for Justice, by Jeanine Pirro, found a spot among Bookish’s favorite covers of 2015. She was also responsible for the cover of 2012’s Romeo Spikes, by Joanne Reay, and paperback reprints of Stephen King novels that came out early in the last decade.
For Monday’s Lie, Lithwick delivers a front that elegantly communicates this yarn’s basic plot line. It shows a young woman with her hands held over her face, yet her physiognomy revealed clearly through those fingers. As if she can’t hide from what’s right there in front of her. Just as the protagonist in Mason’s novel, Dee Aldrich, can’t avoid acknowledging the obvious—that (as publicity materials put it) “her marriage is falling apart and she’s starting to believe that her husband has his eye on a new life … a life without her, one way or another.” This is Mason’s second novel, following 2013’s Three Graves Full, which was also brought to market by Gallery, and the covers for both have been quite haunting. I look forward to seeing whether the presentation of her next work can top that of
Capturing third place in our competition is The Fury of Blacky Jaguar (One Eye Press), a novella by Angel Luis Colón, who has written for Web publications such as the Los Angeles Review of Books and the ambitious but late site, The Life Sentence. Colón is said to be finishing up a debut novel called Hell Chose Me, and he serves as an editor for the flash-fiction site Shotgun Honey.
In reply to an e-note I sent his way, Colón reports that the “design work [for Blacky Jaguar] was done by my publisher, Ron Earl Phillips. The guy’s amazing. Glad he’ll get some long-overdue credit.” Indeed, West Virginia resident Phillips—who also happens to be Shotgun Honey’s managing editor—deserves plenty of kudos for the powerful black, white, and red imagery fronting Colón’s paperback novella. The story inside is built around the eponymous Mr. Jaguar, an “ex-IRA hard man, devoted greaser, and overall hooligan,” who “is furious” because “someone’s made off with Polly, his 1959 Plymouth Fury, and there’s not much that can stop him from getting her back.” Phillip’s cover arrangement puts said Detroit gas-guzzler front and center, like a great bull with a chrome-plated grin, waiting impatiently to charge. Not a cover that’s easily ignored, and one that gathered 1,360 votes (or 19.59 percent) in this year’s match-up.
Our fourth-place champ is in sharp contrast with Blacky Jaguar. The front of True Grift, by Jack Bunker (Brash), is all about softness and grace, rather than strength and grittiness. Reviewing this debut offering from attorney-turned-author Bunker, Bookgasm called it “a comedic romp through a scam gone wrong. … J.T. Edwards, a bankrupt lawyer, meets Al Boyle, a greedy insurance adjuster, in the coffee shop of the golf course they both frequent in the land-locked ‘Inland Empire’ section of Southern California, several miles southeast of Los Angeles. After sharing their mutual financial and professional woes, the two devise a quick-cash personal injury scam.”
True Grift’s façade (which won 203 votes, or 2.92 percent of the total) nicely captures this tale’s comedic quality. You have the cartoonish bomb, with sputtering fuse and the book’s title, floating in the upper left-hand corner. You have the fedora-topped golfer photographed in the midst of his follow-through. And, of course, that linksman is standing in what appears initially to be a golf course bunker (aka “sand trap”—a nice allusion to the author’s moniker). But if you spread the cover out enough to appreciate its entirety, you recognize the bunker for what it actually is: the lumbar curve on a very beautiful, bikini-wrapped young woman. Praise for this composite artwork is owed generally to the New York-based design company Damonza, but specifically to a freelance designer who goes by the name Momir. By the way, Momir’s artistic skills have earned him more than a bit of attention over the last several years, especially from a blog called The Book Designer, which showcases a variety of his e-book fronts here.
Finally, taking home fifth-place honors in The Rap Sheet’s 2015 Best Crime Fiction Cover contest, is The Strings of Murder (Michael Joseph UK), the first novel by Mexico-born author Oscar De Muriel. Since De Muriel’s plot revolves around the locked-room murder of a violinist in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1888, it’s no surprise to find the virtuoso’s instrument incorporated into this work’s face. However, the art is considerably more complicated than that. Created by Roberlan Borges, a Brazilian graphic designer and illustrator with a fondness for vintage imagery, it combines classic-style typography with elements suggestive of both music and the unknown. “I wanted to give the cover several layers of images,” Borges has written, “like different nuances, and give the impression of a mystery being unfolded.” Layer atop all that embossed titles, and you get a book cover that, when held, delights your eyes as well as your fingertips.
The Strings of Murder bagged 151 votes, or 2.18 percent of all those cast. I’d have expected it to do even better, but as I said earlier, this wasn’t a typical surveying year. We will have to see how things go when we assemble our Best Crime Fiction Covers of 2016 nominees 10 months from now. Meanwhile, congratulations to all of this year’s winners! To find the complete survey results, click here.