Sunday, December 13, 2009

It’s What’s Up Front That Counts

Every year since 2007 (which seems like a rather long time ago just now), The Rap Sheet has hosted an annual “Best Crime Fiction Covers” competition. We’ve gotten in the habit of keeping track each year of book jackets that we think stand out from the crowd of egregious copycats, trendy duplicates (this year’s overused theme being shadowy running men), and downright lame fronts that substitute ominous imagery for honest reflections of the stories contained within. By the end of each twelvemonth, we usually have a file of 25 to 30 distinctive jackets. Then we trim that down to a mere dozen covers we think are the best of the breed.

So, what elements are the members of our judging panel concentrating on at that penultimate, winnowing-down stage? Author, January Magazine editor, and Rap Sheet contributor Linda L. Richards provides this brief explanation:
The covers were looked at in their entirely while the selections were made. Not just the central image was considered, but also the use of type, the color selections, and the final balance of the whole. Most important, given the genesis of this particular dance, the panel was looking for originality above all other things.

In the end, this is what we figure: though you might not agree with our choices, it’s unlikely you’ll have seen anything quite like them anywhere else.
Glancing over our final dozen choices--displayed below, in alphabetical order by title--I am surprised to discover that only two are British covers. And only one is centered around a photograph; the remainder feature illustrations, tend to be moody in their presentations, and employ typography in a number of intriguing fashions. A few are brilliant in their simplicity. A pair of the fronts on our shortlist pay homage to classic crime-fiction imagery, whether the pulpish paperback fronts of the mid-20th century or the noirish films produced earlier in the 1900s. The cover of Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move is actually two covers, an apparently bullet-riddled dust jacket encasing illustrations of the principal characters in his novel. And some of our selections, including the jacket of Andrew Pyper’s The Killing Circle and Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection, are definitely more striking when you hold them in your hands than when you study them on a computer screen.

Having made our top 12 picks, we now turn the final vote over to you, The Rap Sheet’s discriminating readers. Once you’ve had a chance to study the nominated book covers closely (click on each one for an enlargement), just scroll down to the end of this post and vote for your favorites. You can choose as many jackets as you wish. We will leave this cover contest open until midnight on Monday, December 28. Then we’ll report the results.

Oh, and if you think we have missed including a 2009 crime novel cover that was especially noteworthy, feel free to mention and discuss it in the Comments section at the end of this post. Just be sure to include a URL with your suggestion, so readers can see the alternative jacket for themselves.


Anonymous said...

Crap. You included TWO of my favorite covers from this year. (Mystic Arts and Ravens) How am I going to decide?

And for the overlooked cover, I'd nominate the American edition of Bryant and May on the Loose ( because the cover perfectly reflects the tone and content of the book.

Cameron Ashley said...

MYSTIC ARTS for me, but very happy to see Leigh Redhead in there. wow that's nice - waaaaay better than the local editions.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Welll I kinda liked the cover of BURY ME DEEP.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree --Bury Me Deep would have won my vote.

Anonymous said...

I thought the Bury Me Deep cover was pretty lame. Great book, but not nearly as good a cover as her last two. I think it was the same illustrator but the designer managed to make it really unappealing. Now Queenpin was a gorgeous cover.

:paula said...

I loved the cover of Vikas Swarup's Six Suspects. But I picked up Jed Berry's book purely in response to that cover, so The Manual of Detection gets my vote.

Mark Coggins said...

BURY ME DEEP is a great book ... and some have already tapped it for best of the decade:

But since it's referenced on the cover of THE BIG WAKE-UP, you can vote for it by proxy! ;-)

Mike Dennis said...

What a great collection of covers. I am torn between eight of them, so I will abstain from voting. But the ones I like are The Big Wake-Up, The Dead Of Winter, Death Was In The Picture, Nobody Move, Peepshow, Ravens, Shadow And Light, and Vanilla Ride. The others were deserving also, but I feel these were the best eight.

It's very, very difficult to pick just one.

Clea Simon said...

I don't know whether it is a good or bad thing that so many really fun books this year used the old pulps as a model. Well, good for the books and fun for design-oriented readers, but it does split the votes a bit!

Graham Powell said...

I really liked the cover for BEAT THE REAPER, and the paperback has a different cover that's just as good.

Kevin Burton Smith said...

Just as the late, great Bo cautioned us not to judge a book by its cover, we shouldn't judge a cover by its book.

This book or that book may indeed be hot shit, but we're voting on covers. It's altogether possible a really great book has a really cruddy cover.

And frankly, I'm a little dismayed at the fawning in some quarters over almost anything retro. Just as Jeff has complained about the slacker mindset of publishers that allows dupe covers, we should be on the lookout for the equally lazy evocation of the pulp era as a one-size fits all solution to cover design.

We should be celebrating originality and cleverness and over-all artistry of design, typography, and illustration and photography -- not simple mimicry and nostalgia.

And yes, I'm fully aware of the irony of that last statement. Because -- as everyone probably knows -- I LOVE that old pulp stuff. A quick glance at my own web site will confirm that little bit of hypocrisy. But come on -- a bad cover is a bad cover, whether it was done in 1959 or its style slavishly imitated in 2009.