Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Wrapping It Up in Fine Style

It’s always hard to predict how The Rap Sheet’s annual Best Crime Fiction Cover competition will shake out. 2015, for instance, brought significant disparities in the number of votes received by what turned out to be the top three book jackets and their raft of rivals. This year—the ninth time the blog has sought what is admittedly an unscientific consensus on book design—the spread wasn’t quite so dramatic. Yet there was still a trio of novel fronts that attracted the greatest attention and acclaim from our readers.

Because of ballot-stuffing antics the last time around, I changed the polling procedures for 2016. Instead of allowing everyone to cast votes for as many covers as they wished, as often as they wanted, I restricted participants to a single chance at choosing their favorites from among 12 nominees; however, they were allowed to register their support of more than one cover on that sole occasion. Although this led to a reduction in the total vote count (as recorded by Polldaddy) from last year’s completely abnormal high of 6,941 to a more typical 1,067, I believe it was a fairer method of collective judgment.

With all of that background conveyed, let me now move on to announcing our five winners for 2016. (You can click on any of the images below to open enlargements.)

Earning first-place honors with a fairly decisive 233 votes (or 21.84 percent of the total) is … Razor Girl (Knopf), the 14th amusing crime novel for adults penned solely by Florida journalist and author Carl Hiaasen. Here’s how I described that book’s story line last August in a fall preview column for Kirkus Reviews:
One can only marvel at Carl Hiaasen’s consistent ability to turn outlandish plot ingredients into bewitching fiction. His latest novel, Razor Girl, begins when Tinseltown talent agent Lane Coolman, wheeling his rental car from Miami, Florida, to Key West—where he’s planning to tighten the reins on Buck Nance, the unpredictable star of a redneck reality-TV series called Bayou Brethren—is rear-ended by pretty young Merry Mansfield, whose attention to the roadway had apparently wavered while she gave herself a bikini shave in the driver’s seat of a Firebird. Turns out, Merry is a serial crash-scam perpetrator, and she and her partner kidnap Coolman, having mistaken him for a beach-repair contractor whose bamboozling behavior has put him on the wrong side of a local criminal bigwig. Without Coolman’s guidance, Nance manages to launch into a racist public rant that inspires a psychotic would-be apprentice and leaves the TV star a suspect in a front-page homicide. Meanwhile, disgraced sheriff Andrew Yancy (from Bad Monkey) thinks he can restore his reputation by solving the aforementioned murder—with a bit of help from the Razor Girl herself, scheming Merry.
Razor Girl’s cover illustration and design represent the first-rate talents of Mark Matcho, with art direction by Alfred A. Knopf’s Carol Carson. According to this brief biographical note, Matcho is a Pasadena, California, resident who’s “been an illustrator since 1985, or thereabouts,” and whose work “appears regularly in Esquire, Los Angeles, and BusinessWeek, among many other fine publications.” You can appreciate more of his artistry at the portfolio site Illoz.

Matcho’s cover for Hiaasen’s book, showing a slender young woman in a bikini top and jeans shorts, riding a giant straight razor, is certainly eye-catching when faced outwards on bookstore shelves. It’s particularly so because of its bright yellow background. Yet that front is very much in keeping with the “signature style” of this author’s books for Knopf. There’s a comic-book character to these covers, which Matcho—who also created the dust-jackets for two previous Hiaasen titles, Bad Monkey and Dance of the Reptiles: Selected Columns—has no trouble replicating. The challenge in following such a pattern, observed author Zoë Sharp in a comment on the announcement of this year’s cover tournament, is to make each new book wrapper in the series “just familiar enough that the reader can spot [it] on the shelf, but not so familiar they think it’s something they’ve already read.”

My guess is that both Hiaasen fans and newcomers to his oeuvre recognized Razor Girl for the fresh—and predictably funny—offering it was.

The greatest amount of jockeying for position in this year’s covers contest was between Razor Girl and a quite different work: Todd Moss’ latest thriller, Ghosts of Havana (Putnam). Moss’ tale achieved an early and seemingly solid lead, but over the week-and-a-half polling period, it eventually slipped into second place, earning 183 votes (or 17.15 percent of the total). Ghosts is the third novel by Maryland writer Moss, who served as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs during George W. Bush’s administration, and is now a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Like its predecessors, The Golden Hour (2014) and Minute Zero (2015), Ghosts stars college professor-turned-State Department crisis manager Judd Ryker. Of its plot, Publishers Weekly explained:
When four friends from the D.C. suburbs agree to go deep-sea fishing off Florida, two are unaware that one of them, a descendant of a Bay of Pigs invader, has a secret agenda; the fourth is in on the game. When their boat strays into Cuban waters and gets captured, Judd’s boss sends him to Havana, to run a back-channel operation to free the “Soccer Dad Four” before they become tokens in a political badminton game between the U.S. and Cuba. Meanwhile, Judd’s wife, Jessica, a former black-ops CIA agent, seeks out the guy who rented the fishing boat to the four Americans.
Interestingly, Ghosts of Havana reached print a little less than two years after U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro finally agreed—following a “54-year stretch of hostility”—to normalize relations between the two countries, and just six months after Obama became the first American chief executive to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge sailed there in 1928 to address the Pan-American Conference of Western Hemisphere leaders. As Moss writes in a prefatory note to Ghosts, Obama’s diplomatic triumph in the Caribbean “prov[ed] yet again that even the most intractable foreign policy logjams can break at any time.”

Also notable is that Moss’ novel carries the only straightforward photographic cover to find a spot among this year’s top five contenders. In response to an e-mail inquiry, Alexis Elmurr, a publicity assistant with Penguin Random House (the parent company of Putnam), told me that “the jacket of Ghosts of Havana was designed by Eric Fuentecilla, and the jacket photograph is credited to Peeter Viisimaa/Getty Images.” Fuentecilla is an associate art director at Penguin, whose previous book façades include those of The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead (2000), and The Day the Leader Was Killed, by Naguib Mahfouz.

Ghosts’ dust cover combines a beautifully lighted nighttime street in what I presume is Havana—its buildings mirrored in the wet pavement—with an elegant title combining sans serif and serif typefaces, both of which appear distressed, as if reflecting the romantically disheveled nature of the Cuban capital. Fuentecilla’s effort here definitely makes me want to follow his designs in the future.

Despite Thomas Mullen being American—a resident of Atlanta, Georgia, in fact—his fourth novel, the historical murder mystery Darktown, was released in Great Britain (by publisher Abacus) a full seven months before it reached U.S. bookstores. And while the latter edition’s cover (fashioned by Laywan Kwan for Atria/37 INK) conveys a suspenseful air, the UK version puts forward a more thought-provoking countenance. Created by Craig Fraser, a freelance graphic designer in London (who has also produced fronts for yarns by Michael Connelly, Viet Thanh Nguyen, John Lescroart, and others), it takes a vintage, sepia-toned photograph of Atlanta, turns it 90 degrees, and uses the city’s irregular skyline to echo the ugly racial divide that Mullen explores in Darktown, reversing the title type to show up best on either side of that border. Darktown was one of my favorite crime novels of 2016, as it was among the top picks of Rap Sheet contributor Kevin Burton Smith. And it became the third-place finisher in this year’s best-cover rivalry, scoring 86 votes (or 8.06 percent of the total).

Here’s my Kirkus Reviews plot synopsis of Mullen’s novel, which is set in the Georgia capital in 1948:
Darktown introduces Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, two of the city’s eight newly employed black police officers. They’re supposed to patrol only “colored neighborhoods” and leave any investigations to their paler brethren. Yet abiding by those restrictions becomes difficult, after this pair witness a Buick plow into a lamppost, and then fail to prevent the inebriated white driver from wheeling away into the night beside a battered young black woman. When that female passenger’s corpse is later discovered, Boggs and Smith want to figure out what happened. But they must do so covertly, lest they enrage the force’s “real” members, one of whom—a corrupt and violent white supremacist—will do almost anything to purge his department of its latest hires.
Darktown is the opening entry in a new series from Mullen. Its sequel, Lightning Men, is due out in the States in September. I have not seen a notice yet that there will be a separate, British edition of the book. But if there is, I hope Fraser will be assigned to fabricate its jacket: I’d like to see what more he can come up with.

In addition to Darktown, one other UK edition won placement on this year’s Best Covers roster: Beloved Poison (Constable), by E.S. “Elaine” Thomson, a Scottish fictionist and noted authority on the social history of medicine. The first installment in a succession of Victorian-era whodunits featuring Jem Flockhart, an androgynous young London apothecary, Beloved Poison finds our hesitant heroine investigating a cache of miniature coffins secreted in the 700-year-old London hospital at which she labors, while simultaneously probing the suspicious poisoning of a nonconformist physician who had served as a mentor to her. The British dust jacket, conceived by South Africa-born illustrator-artist Jordan Metcalf (with art direction from publisher Little, Brown’s Hannah Wood), is a meticulously detailed composition displaying items suggestive of Jem’s expertise—a skull, an old-fashioned syringe, herbs, bottles of medicine, etc.—around a highly stylized banner containing the book’s title in a decorative serif typeface. If you take a quick tour through Metcalf’s online portfolio, you will realize that he makes a specialty of custom lettering, so it is hardly surprising that the type fronting Thomson’s debut mystery should be its most engaging element.

That British cover of Beloved Poison—which I think superior to the U.S. edition (designed for Pegasus Books by Tim Green, a senior art director at Faceout Studio)—captured 82 votes in this year’s survey, or 7.69 percent of the total count. A sequel, Dark Asylum, set to go on sale in the UK in early March, boasts a similar design style.

Finally, completing our top-five list of vote-getters is The Far Empty (Putnam). Penned by J. Todd Scott, a real-life agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, this novel is set in America’s Southwest and builds around authoritarian Sheriff Stanford “Judge” Ross, who eschews the discovery of unidentified skeletal remains on his patch as likely belonging to either an “illegal” Mexican laborer or a drug runner—no one who demands much regard. However, his new deputy isn’t satisfied with leaving the matter unresolved; and Ross’ teenage son fears the bones might be those of his mother, who disappeared more than a year ago. Together, they’ll challenge Ross’ long-standing control and throw light on some well-concealed local secrets.

The Far Empty, Scott’s debut novel, collected 76 votes, or 7.12 percent of the total cast in this year’s survey. Its façade was created by Tim Lane, a St. Louis, Missouri-based illustrator and graphic novelist who claims to have been “influenced by comic books of the late 1940s and early 1950s, American mythology, and Dick Tracy comic strips.” From a distance, the dust jacket’s focal point is seen as a hand clutching a pistol. Only as one studies the image closer-up is it clear that the hand is skeletal, and that the gun is decorated with human skulls. This reminds me of a novel that won our Best Cover competition back in 2010, Shūichi Yoshida’s Villain, though in that case the gun on the front wasn’t just adorned with bones—it was made of bones.

So, congratulations to all of our 2016 winners! You can click here to see how this quintet of novel fronts stacked up against the remaining seven nominees. As usual, I was impressed by the caliber of contestants this year; all of them were standouts in the field, deserving of public acclaim and demonstrating that book designers haven’t lost their ability to amaze as well as delight. I’ve already begun gathering possible candidates for Best Crime Fiction Cover of 2017 distinction. If, between now and December, you espy any crime novel jackets you think are especially noteworthy, I’d be glad to hear about them. Simply drop me an e-mail note here.

READ MORE:Notable Book Covers of 2016,” by Dan Wagstaff (The Casual Optimist); “The Best Book Covers of 2016,” by Matt Dorfman (The New York Times); “BOLO Books’ Top Five Covers of 2016,” by Kristopher Zgorski (BOLO Books); “2016 Book Covers We Loved,” by Vyki Hendy and Eric Wilder (Spine); “32 of the Most Beautiful Book Covers of 2016,” by Jarry Lee (BuzzFeed).

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