Thursday, January 06, 2011

Front and Center

With the voting now closed and the ballots counted in The Rap Sheet’s surprisingly heated competition for the title of Best Crime Novel Cover of 2010, we finally have a winner: it’s the front of Villain (Pantheon), acclaimed Japanese author Shūichi Yoshida’s gritty story about a young insurance saleswoman’s strangulation and the exposing of personal lives that follows her slaying. Villain’s eye-catching jacket design, built around the embossed image of a handgun shaped from the major bones of the human body, was put together by Chip Kidd, the associate art director at publisher Alfred A. Knopf, using a photograph by Francois Robert.

Out of the 1,039 votes registered in this contest, Villain captured 212 (or 20.4 percent). In addition, it receives high acclaim from The Rap Sheet’s judges. “Creepy but effective,” says David Middleton, a graphic artist, illustrator, and photographer who serves as the art and culture editor of January Magazine. “Understated typography lets the bold image take center stage. Really grabs your attention so that you want to keep looking to figure it out.” Meanwhile, Kevin Burton Smith, the editor and creator of The Thrilling Detective Web Site, calls this cover “simple, unnerving, [and] potent. It almost feels like we’re looking at something forbidden, something taboo. Some people will absolutely HATE this.” Maybe so, but there were obviously not enough such naysayers to prevent Villain from taking top honors.

(Click on any of the covers here for an enlargement.)

Coming in at No. 2 in our contest (with 202 votes, or 19.44 percent) is the deliberately exotic front of City of Dragons (Minotaur Books), Kelli Stanley’s first novel featuring Miranda Corbie, an ex-escort and female private investigator working the streets, gambling dens, and Chinatown alleyways of 1940s San Francisco. The work of designer David Baldeosingh Rotstein, City of Dragons offers a composite of stock photographs that judge Linda L. Richards, a novelist who’s also the editor of January, says “evokes the elements of the novel perfectly.” Smith seems particularly impressed by Rotstein’s ability to work so much into his cover, without the result being too busy or off-putting: “[It] evokes perfectly a time, a place, a mood. Or two. The hustle and bustle of a vibrant city versus the tired resignation/optimism of a working girl. Hope versus cynicism. Light versus dark. Places to go versus going nowhere. And perfect color choices. They even work in a neon sign.”

Rounding out the top three vote-getters for 2010 (with 141 votes, or 13.57 percent) is the eerie skull-in-dots jacket on Adam Ross’ Mr. Peanut (Knopf/Borzoi), an alternately frightening and poignant story about men who are obsessed with, and guilt-ridden by the deaths of their wives. That jacket is credited to one of Kidd’s colleagues, Knopf associate art director Peter Mendelsund (whose other recent work includes the familiar but relatively understated U.S. fronts of Stieg Larsson’s three thrillers).

Not long ago, I took the opportunity to interview Mendelsund on the subject of his Mr. Peanut dust jacket. He joked about how it was “hard to marry the idea of peanuts to death,” so he wound up creating an image that conveys danger and mortality but employs the color palette of Jimmy Carter’s favorite legumes. “We spot-glossed those dots [in the skull image],” Mendelsund explains, “and that gives a bit of luster to it. But really, if you put [Mr. Peanut] on a store shelf next to other colorful books fighting each other for customer attention, it doesn’t need so much color to stand out.” Judge Middleton concurs: “This cover would really grab you by the lapels from across the room ’cause that’s where you would fully see the image. It’s not until you get up close that you realize what little it takes to convey a message and how well it has been pulled off.” Richards cheers Mendelsund’s work as “brilliant in its simplicity.” And though Smith contends that Mr. Peanut’s cover is “a little generic--it could just as easily be for a Philip K. Dick novel or a social media handbook”--he’s impressed by its “cold ... eerie, off-kilter” nature.

Two other covers also made it into Rap Sheet readers’ top five choices.

The first is Will Staehle’s design for The Sherlockian (Twelve), a debut work by Graham Moore, which received 115 votes, or 11.07 percent. That novel tells the parallel stories of a modern-day search for Arthur Conan Doyle’s missing diary and the investigation, by Sherlock Holmes’ creator himself, into the deaths of three suffragettes at the turn of the last century. On its dust jacket, Staehle delivers a clever combination of a pipe, upended like a question mark, with the dot being a splotch of blood. The reader needs no further clues to realize that inside, he will find a mystery story relating in some regard to the world’s most famous “consulting detective.” Judge Smith cheers Staehle for a “brave use of some of the most iconic language of the genre (the pipe, the blood, the question mark). It doesn’t talk, it swears. [The cover is] rendered without apology, but held in check by its simple, just-what’s-needed, classy, traditional composition.” Middleton calls The Sherlockian’s front “brilliant. [I’m] surprised this has not been done before, or if it has, maybe not quite so well.”

Finally, the No. 5 spot in our contest goes to The Vanishing of Katharina Linden (Delacorte Press), by London-born Belgian author Helen Grant. Designed by Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich, its cover features the type-filled silhouette of a cat--a coy reference to Grant’s strange story about a pre-teen girl whose vanishing stirs up talk of the supernatural and witches taking on feline guise. “An absolutely perfect contemporary rendering on an Art Nouveau theme,” declares judge Richards. “This could so easily have been a disaster, but it’s not. Lots of work but not overworked. And the whiskers are genius!” Although he usually tries to put a good deal of distance between himself and cat covers, even Smith is charmed by Vanishing’s façade. He applauds its “clever, stylish, deliberately ornate typography and witty design that teeters on the edge of being gimmicky but never succumbs.”

We would like to thank everyone who took the time to participate in this year’s race for Best Crime Novel Cover of the Year honors. It paid off: the 1,039 votes cast in this competition far exceeded last year’s count of 634. It would be nice to think that each time we hold this contest, there will be greater interest. But much will likely depend on the quality of jackets we have to choose from in 2011 and beyond. There are plenty of skilled book designers working today. As long as focus groups and marketing execs don’t inhibit their creativity too greatly, we expect to be cheering some of their latest efforts 12 months from now.

AN INVITATION TO READERS: If, between now and December, you spot any crime novel covers you think are especially stylish, we’d welcome your alerting us to their existence. Simply drop an e-mail note here.

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