Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Becoming Attractions

During the seven years The Rap Sheet has held its annual Best Crime Fiction Covers competition (ever since 2007, though we wound up skipping 2012), I have never once guessed which book jacket would win. This time, however, I not only pegged the victor, but I was confident of my choice even before the year began.

Allow me to feel awfully smug for a moment.

OK, now, let’s recap: This last December 9, I posted 20 covers from crime, mystery, and thriller novels--all released over the last 12 months, on both sides of the Atlantic--that I said offered “more than the usual complements of expertise, cleverness, subtlety, and freshness.” Some of those jackets I’d had in my files for months, while others were suggested more recently by Rap Sheet readers. As part of the December 9 post, I invited everybody who was interested in participating to fill out a ballot identifying their favorites among the bunch. We received 1,192 votes, which was down somewhat from last year’s tally, but not by much. (2013 attracted 1,329 votes, spread between 15 nominees.) As has often been the case in the past, the closer we got to the cut-off date--which was December 21 this year--the more votes were registered each day. It was interesting to watch the swift jockeying back and forth of the top contenders, as ballots poured in. And at the finish line, it proved to be a tight race, with only 38 votes separating the No. 1 pick from the No. 3 choice.

Finally coming out on top was the darkly evocative front from the British edition of The Black-Eyed Blonde (Mantle), the latest high-profile Philip Marlowe pastiche, written by Benjamin Black (aka Booker Prize-winning Irish wordsmith John Banville). Receiving 171 votes, or 14.35 percent of the total, that cover was the work of Jonathan Pelham, a senior designer for UK imprints 4th Estate and William Collins (and a former “middleweight” designer with Pan Macmillan and Picador).

As I wrote in Kirkus Reviews last March, The Black-Eyed Blonde finds Los Angeles private eye Marlowe “being hired, in the early 1950s, by a curvaceous and easily bored young perfume heiress to trace her caddish former paramour, who’s supposed to be dead--the victim of a hit-and-run incident two months ago--but who she purportedly spotted just recently up San Francisco way.” Pelham’s design for that novel’s jacket is dominated by the profiles of a smoking man and a red-lipsticked young woman, facing opposite directions but nonetheless appearing to move in tandem, the gent’s cigarette smoke swirling about them both. From the midst of their joined shadows pop bold white titles, rendered in a typeface echoing that used in the trailers for classic black-and-white horror and thriller films.

“The biggest challenge at first was finding stock photography that felt appropriate to the period and mood of the book,” Pelham told me in response to an e-mailed query. “After turning up almost no images that delivered the melodrama I was looking for, I decided to approach the problem from a different angle: find models with strong profiles and fudge the period feel by obscuring them with heavy, noirish shadows. The basic composition built itself after that, though I spent a very long time refining things. I suspect I was subconsciously influenced by the graphics from packets of Gitanes cigarettes, which my father used to smoke.

“Ideally I would have had the lettering hand painted by some professional sign-painter/calligrapher, but due to time and budget constraints that wasn’t possible. Instead I set the type in a comic-book font called Monster Mash, which I warped to fit the space, altered the terminals of each letter in an effort to disguise the fact that it was a font, and then added an inverted drop-shadow. I’m not particularly pleased with the lettering, truth be told--I would have liked it to have had a more fluid feel--although I did enjoy the process of breaking all the rules of ‘good’ typography. The [back cover] blurb copy is set in News Gothic. Support and criticism from other designers and typographers during the process also helped a great deal.”

Regardless of Pelham’s doubts about his work, his design for the façade of Black/Banville’s 2014 novel is far superior to the cover U.S. publisher Henry Holt brought to market.

It’s curious to see that the first-place finisher in this year’s book-cover survey is a novel starring Raymond Chandler’s best-known fictional gumshoe, while the No. 2 spot goes to a far less-publicized book in which Chandler himself plays a substantial role. The Kept Girl, by Kim Cooper (Esotouric Ink), takes place in late summer, 1929, and imagines Joseph Dabney, head of the Dabney Oil Syndicate--a petroleum-drilling enterprise in Southern California for which Chandler once worked as a bookkeeper (and later as vice-president)--asking the future author to help retrieve $40,000 his nephew imprudently gave to a wacky religious cult. As I explained in this Kirkus column from earlier this year, The Kept Girl also brings to the case a resourceful woman based on Chandler’s reported mistress of the time and Thomas H. James, a stalwart member of the Los Angeles Police Department who may have provided Chandler with his inspiration for the Marlowe character.

Credit for the front of The Kept Girl--the first novel by Cooper, co-owner of an L.A. bus-tour company and a “passionate advocate for historic preservation”--belongs to Pasadena artist Paul Rogers. He’s known for his work on posters, as well as advertising and editorial projects, and he developed the striking original look for Farrar, Straus & Giroux’s 2009 edition of Shadow and Light, by Jonathan Rabb. Rogers also designed “The Raymond Chandler Map of Los Angeles,” a fold-out guide to the City of Angels. His collage-like cover for The Kept Girl includes elements drawn from this tale’s rich plot line: L.A.’s towering City Hall, a pipe and pair of round-framed specs that look like those favored by Chandler, a Depression-era automobile, and the mock-up of a newspaper front page featuring a photograph of May Otis Blackburn and her daughter, Ruth Wieland Rizzio, who were behind the cult about which Cooper writes. Behind all of those rises the silhouette of a woman, presumably “the kept girl” herself. It all adds up to a stylish creation that says both “crime fiction” and “period piece.” The Kept Girl collected 157 votes in The Rap Sheet’s latest Best Crime Fiction Covers contest, or 13.17 percent of the total.

Rounding out the top three spots--having captured 133 votes, or 11.16 percent of the total--is Brash Books’ reprint of Sleeping Dog, by Dick Lochte. This novel, initially released in 1985 by Arbor Press, was the first to feature Southern California P.I. Leo Bloodworth and his self-appointed teenage partner, Serendipity Dahlquist. It won the Nero Award from The Wolfe Pack, a New York-based Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin fan organization, and in 2000 was named by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association as one of its favorite mysteries of the 20th century. Publishers Weekly offered the following plot synopsis:
This thriller outclasses, in many ways, the tales of Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and other renowned California mystery writers. Raffishly funny incidents, grave dangers and touching moments are described alternately by Serendipity Dahlquist, 14, and Leo G. Bloodworth, a middle-aged private eye. Their search for Serendipity’s stolen dog takes the two up and down the coast, into clashes with operators of cruel dog fights, inept hit men for Mexican gangsters and other menaces. Linked to the plot also are a pushy TV comic, Serendipity’s hippie mother with her current companion, Leo’s partner (who is one of several victims of a faceless killer) and the unsolved robbery of a Los Angeles bank. The novel’s critical point occurs at a huge, mind-blowing punk-rock center where Serendipity lands in a trap set by the villain. Lochte astonishingly builds a host of disparate elements into a corker entertainment, uncontrived and satisfying.
Sleeping Dog has gone through several printings, all differently packaged. Brash Books’ version boasts a front by Zak Erving, who says on his Web site that he’s “equipped to tackle creative hurdles in a variety of mediums. Currently, I design books for Amazon/Createspace, make jigsaw puzzles for an artisan puzzle company, make logos and branding kits for various businesses,” and create user interface “experiences” for the mobile operating system iOS. His colorful, playful artwork for the cover of Sleeping Dog, featuring what must be silhouettes of the hard-drinking Bloodworth, the precocious, roller-skating Serendipity, and her pitbull, Groucho, stands out nicely on bookstore racks. Erving also created fronts for Lochte’s novel-length sequel, Laughing Dog (1988), and his 2014 Kindle-only follow-up, Rappin’ Dog.

Fourth place in this poll goes to Brainquake, by Samuel Fuller. For a while it was leading the competition, but ultimately wound up scoring 77 votes, or 6.46 percent of the total. Fuller, you may know, was an American screenwriter, novelist, and film director who died in 1987 at age 85. His movie credits include The Steel Helmet (1951), Park Row (1952), the Richard Widmark film Pickup on South Street (1953), and The Big Red One (1980). He also penned such novels as The Dark Page (1944) and 144 Piccadilly (1971). As The Dissolve explains, Fuller wrote Brainquake--“about a brain-damaged mafia ‘bagman’ who risks his life and his livelihood to help the widow of one of his colleagues”--in 1993, while living in France. The edition released earlier this year by Hard Case Crime represents its first publication in the English language.

While it’s not unusual for Hard Case paperbacks to figure into our annual covers competition (they’re usually so sexy and fun!), I believe this is the first time one of them has secured top-five placement. The artwork for Brainquake was created by Glen Orbik, a frequent contributor to the Hard Case line. (He has previously worked up the fronts for novels by Stephen King, Christa Faust, Max Allan Collins and others, and he illustrated Thieves Fall Out, a “lost” novel by Gore Vidal, which is due for publication in April 2015.)

Finally, we came out with a tie for the No. 5 position in this year’s contest. The Axeman’s Jazz, by Ray Celestin (Mantle; cover design by Jo Thomson), and Gangsterland, by Tod Goldberg (Counterpoint; designed by Michael Fusco), both received a respectable 60 votes, or 5.03 percent of the total count.

I want to thank everyone who cast a ballot in this year’s Best Crime Fiction Covers rivalry. We had an especially strong field of contenders--mostly illustrated fronts, but a couple that featured photographs. Any of the 20 might have scored top honors. If you’d like to see how all of them did in terms of popularity, click over to this post and then scroll down to study the poll results at the end.

Already I’m looking forward to 2015, collecting fronts from new crime and thriller novels that might ably go head to head in next year’s contest. If you spot any you think deserve to be included, please drop me an e-mail note here. I look forward to hearing from you.

READ MORE:The 30 Best Book Covers of 2014,” by Liz Shinn and Alisan Lemay (Paste); “The 25 Best Book Covers of 2014,” by Jonathon Sturgeon (Flavorwire); “50 Covers for 2014,” by Dan Wagstaff (The Casual Optimist); “My Year of Reading: Best Book Covers of 2014,” by David Abrams (The Quivering Pen).

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