Covers


WHAT IS GOOD COVER ART?
by Josef Hoffman


   In my view, the vast majority of cover illustrations for present-day crime novels are boring or even ugly, and that includes all subgenres. Worst of all are the uninspired photographic covers with images of a pistol or a knife, a house or a street, one or more people, especially if these have nothing whatsoever to do with the plot of the crime story.

   There is not much point in pining for times past, when covers were still drawn or painted and suggested significant scenes of the crime story. It would seem to be the wrong approach to simply imitate the style of the cover illustrations of the 1950s, for example; and this is also wrong even if the old crime novels are reissued.

   For instance, I hesitate to buy the recently published book containing the collected stories of the Black Mask author Paul Cain (The Complete Slayers), as I feel put off by the much-praised illustration by Ron Lesser on the cover. It shows a scantily clothed, sexy young woman with a cigarette and a gun, with which she appears to have just killed a man.

JOSEF HOFFMANN Paperback Covers

   My distaste for this cover illustration has nothing to do with “political correctness” or even prudery, but rather with historical consciousness. I would have preferred it if original cover illustrations from old Black Mask editions had been used for the cover of the book, for example as parts of a collage.

   It’s not as if I do not also enjoy so-called “GGA” (Good Girl Art), but only when it originates from the same period as the publication of the books. Back then it was something new, a daring venture that only just escaped the censors. Nowadays one is practically bombarded with pictures of more or less naked people everywhere. Relying on sexploitation to create cover art is dull and annoying.

   Taking a historical view, I can even appreciate such an extreme and infamous, frequently reproduced cover image as Rudolph Belarski’s The Doll’s Trunk Murder by Helen Reilly (Popular Library, # 211) from 1949. It is so bizarre and surreal that even any misogynist tendencies that might exist are neutralised aesthetically.

JOSEF HOFFMANN Paperback Covers

   The picture shows a pretty young woman tied to a chair. Her mouth is sealed with adhesive tape. Her blouse is open, revealing much of one breast. A male hand holding a knife approaches the woman. The observer cannot tell whether the intended use of the knife is to abuse the woman, to kill her, or to cut through her fetters. The picture has a thrilling, explosive effect.

   Such an image would have quite a different impact on me if it were painted and published now, in 2012. As mentioned, I am not talking about “political correctness” here, which is sensibly applied to political speeches, news and similar statements, but which has no place in artistic products, even if they are merely lurid entertainment.

   What I mean is a contemporary taste. A relatively good solution to the problem was found by Black Lizard Books in designing the newly reissued, old noir crime novels. The cover illustrations by Kirwan capture the sinister atmosphere of these crime stories without imitating the original covers, as is sadly the case with some of the covers in the Hard Case Crime series.

   Here is a link to Kirwan’s covers he did for Black Lizard. I do not like them all equally, as I find some of them too surreal, but most of them are well done. One I think is very good is the one he did for Black Friday, by David Goodis. The atmosphere is so hopeless and the colours are so cold that the picture suits the story.

JOSEF HOFFMANN Paperback Covers

   A complete collection of the Hard Case Crime covers may be found here. An example of one I consider bad is the picture of Lawrence Block’s 69 Barrow Street. It is rather unimaginative to put just a nude in the middle of the cover, not exciting at all.

JOSEF HOFFMANN Paperback Covers

   Much better is the cover art of No House Limit by Steve Fisher. These big dice in front of the picture symbolize chance in life and are significant for the novel.

JOSEF HOFFMANN Paperback Covers

   Perhaps the publishers’ art directors should look around at some comic artists in order to find new visual forms of expression that might suit crime novels. Admittedly, it costs more to pay these artists for their work (which should also require that they read the crime novel in question) than it would to simply use a more or less suitable picture from a photo archive, or to plunder one from the masterpieces of art history.

   It involves more effort and expense to create a new picture than to select one that already exists. By the way, it is only acceptable to use a painting by Caravaggio on the cover of a crime novel that is published now if the story deals with the robbery of such a painting, or is set during Caravaggio’s time.

   It might well be that I have suffered a surfeit of crime novel cover art and am therefore hypercritical. I know of no ideal solution. Perhaps some other crime lovers have better suggestions.

REVIEWED BY RAY O’LEARY:
   

ELLERY QUEEN Calamity Town

  ELLERY QUEEN – Calamity Town. Little Brown, hardcover, 1942. Pocket 283, paperback, 1945. Reprinted many times, in both hardcover and soft.

   When I first started reading Mysteries, back in the mid-60s, I pretty much devoured the earlier titles of the acknowledged “masters” of the Classic Detective Story (except for Erle Stanley Gardner, whom I ignored until the late 70s) so I probably first read this about a quarter-century ago. I turned to it again, just recently, because it was the only Ellery Queen selected by H. R. F. Keating in his 100 Best Books of Crime and Mystery.

   Ellery “Smith” comes to the New England town of Wrightsville to work on his new novel, and stays — due to Wartime housing shortages — in a house built by Mr. Wright for his daughter Nora, when she was going to be married … only just before the Wedding, her fiance, one Jim Haight, disappeared.

ELLERY QUEEN Calamity Town

   Shortly after Ellery takes up residence, however, the missing Haight returns, and it isn’t long before he and Nora are re-betrothed and then married. Ellery gives up the house, but as he and Nora’s sister are moving some of Jim’s things in, they discover three letters, dated for the forthcoming Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, in which he describes Nora’s illness and death.

   Sure enough, on Thanksgiving and Christmas Nora is ill, but come New Year’s Day, it’s someone completely else who buys the farm, a victim of Arsenic poisoning.

   Hard to say whether I figured out the solution of this one or just remembered it from my Salad Days, since the idea has been used since. The characters are credible, if not terribly deep, and the prose serviceable. Not as memorable as the three Queen novels on my list, but pretty good nonetheless.

Editorial Comment:   The top image is that of the hardcover First Edition. The lower one is one of the later Pocket reprints. I chose it because of the rare split-screen effect, one that I don’t believe was used very often by paperback publishers, then or now.

THE FRONT COVER:

ERLE STANLEY GARDNER TCOT Velvet Claws



THE INSIDE FRONT JACKET FLAP:

A MORROW MYSTERY


To Readers of Detective Stories:

   One day last December our editorial and sales departments agreed that too many mystery stories are being published in America and decided to accept no more such novels for at least six months. The next day two manuscripts were received. They were both by the same author. They were both detective stories. They were both accepted at once for publication.

   The Case of the Velvet Claws is one of those manuscripts. The second will be published in the fall. (*) And both sales and editorial departments claim the credit for being the first to prophecy that Erle Stanley Gardner will find a place immediately as one of the most popular authors of detective fiction.

   We hope that after reading this book you will agree we were justified in changing our minds.

(signed)   The Publishers.

* The Case of the Sulky Girl.

The Story

   Perry Mason, criminal lawyer, is retained by a much-too-beautiful woman who obviously is concealing more than she is telling. She has heard that Perry Mason not only a law unto himself, but that he never lets a client down. She has been indiscreet, and is involved in blackmail.

   The case is immediately complicated by murder, and Perry Mason finds himself as busy keeping clear of the law himself as he is in saving his client. The action is swift, dramatic, convincing. The handling and solution of the case are well developed and logical — perhaps because the author is a practicing lawyer with a trained legal mind.

   Mr. Gardner’s writing has a style and personality of its own. His characters are colorful and vital. The lawyer, Perry Mason, and his charming secretary, Della Street, we believe, will become famous characters to all detective story enthusiasts.

WILLIAM MORROW & COMPANY
386 Fourth Avenue        New York



THE INSIDE BACK JACKET FLAP:   A detailed synopsis of –In Time for Murder, by R. A. J. Walling, a mystery novel also published by Morrow.

THE BACK COVER:   A statement of the philosophy of the publisher relative to detective fiction, and a list of the titles they had recently published:

R. A. WALLING
   Stroke of One
   –In Time for Murder
CHARLES G. BOOTH
    Those Seven Alibis
    Gold Bullets
CHRISTOPHER BUSH
    The Case of the April Fools
    Cut Throat
WALTER F. EBERHARDT
    A Dagger in the Dark
ROGER DENBIE (upcoming)
    Death on the Limited (April 1933)

COVER PRICE:   $2.00.

NOTE: Thanks to Bill Pronzini and Mark Terry for the cover images used to provide the information above.

REVIEWED BY J. F. NORRIS:


ANN CARDWELL – Crazy to Kill. Mystery House, hardcover, 1941. Black Cat Detective #10, digest paperback, 1944. Harlequin #22, Canada, pb, 1949. Macfadden 35-119, paperback, 1962; Uni-Books reprint, no date. Nightwood Editions, softcover, Canada, 1990. The book was also converted to an opera with this title by James Reaney, Sr., and John Beckwith; it was performed in Canada in 1989.

ANN CARDWELL Crazy to Kill

   Earlier this month there was a post of a review of this book by Canadian author Ann Cardwell. The review by Bill Deeck ended with a tantalizing sentence trailing off in an ellipsis of ambiguity. “One of the rare mysteries with a mental institution setting and one of the rare… But that mustn’t be revealed.” We were all puzzled. What did Bill Deeck mean?

   I ordered a copy and when it arrived last weekend read the very short novel rather quickly. The book, a paperback published by an outfit called Uni-Books, was littered with typos and punctuation errors but most infuriating of all the characters’ names kept changing — sometimes within the same paragraph. I don’t have any other copy to compare this with so I can’t tell where these errors came from, but it still drove me batty.

   One of the murder victims is called Tim but he when he is first introduced his name changes from Tim to Tom in the span of one line. Later in the book he is referred to as Tom again and then Tim a few lines later. The narrator, Agatha Lawson, is once called Miss Lawrence which is the first name of one of the police detectives. Miss Lawson is also once called Miss Wilson — the name of one of the nurses in the hospital. On the rear cover of the book Dr. Holman is rechristened Dr. Holden by someone who clearly didn’t read the book.

ANN CARDWELL Crazy to Kill

   The blurb on the back also downplays the lurid murder story and instead focuses on a very minor incident involving a jealous lover’s triangle among two nurses and a doctor — although two doctor’s names are mentioned and a fourth nurse’s name is thrown into the works.

   You can imagine how this was more than just a minor distraction like an occasional typo that may pop up in even a leading paperback publisher’s book. I even began to wonder if this was intentional. After all, Agatha Lawson is a mental patient and this could have been a clever manipulation of truth and delusion on the author’s part. Then I discarded that thought and did my best to overlook the errors and typos. The story was engaging enough and I ought not to let minutiae like that get the better of me

   So to the story. Miss Lawson narrates a tale of a crazed murderer on the loose who is killing staff members and attacking patients seemingly at random. No motive seems clear. The multiple methods of murder (stabbing, bludgeoning, strangling) only reinforce the suspicion of a homicidal maniac at work.

   I have to admit having been trained so well in the contemporary thriller trope of the “unreliable narrator” that I was skeptical of much of what Miss Lawson told the reader. I wasn’t sure I was getting the real facts and played closer attention to the other characters’ speeches and behavior.

ANN CARDWELL Crazy to Kill

   Agatha is also obsessed with leaving the institution and seems more concerned about passing her “sanity exam” than with the murderer in their midst. Yet somehow she is allowed to serve as a Watson to the two police detectives in charge of the investigation. As she tells Lt. Hogan, “It takes a thief to catch a thief,” implying that she knows more of the ways of the patients than an outsider would.

   I hesitate to go into the sometimes complicated plot any further. Bill’s review does a good job of mentioning the salient points. Let me just say that Cardwell did a good job of misleading the reader. There are several surprises that caught me off guard leading up to the final revelation of the killer.

   The final twist may not be a huge surprise but it was the perfect ending to a story that reminded me of a few of those British anthology horror films of the 1970s like Asylum and The House that Dripped Blood. Cardwell may well have created a minor classic in the subgenre of the homicidal killer mystery.

   A review of other books published prior to 1941 might even prove that her book is a first of its kind. I cannot think of one earlier than this with a similarly constructed story although there are a handful with that rare … ah, but that must not be revealed. Deja vu, eh?

Editorial Comments:   As far as I know, Uni-Books was one of those repackaging companies that bought up rights to books from other publishers and put new covers on them but more or less kept the text block the same. They then sold the books as the equivalent of instant remainders, dumping them off to drugstores and supermarkets to sell at whatever discount they chose.

   The cover of the Macfadden edition, done by Ronnie Lesser, continued the “nurse” theme of the Black Cat version, but there’s still that menacing shadow standing in the doorway as a reminder that there is a mystery involved.

   The Uni-Books cover, however, the lowermost of the three you see here is purely a generic one with nurses only. Unless you read the small print (the same as on the Macfadden), you’d never know it was a mystery. (Well, there is the title, of course.)

   They’re not exactly unknown, but to fans of Michael Avallone in the US, they might as well be. Perhaps it’s only a tease, but British mystery bookseller Jamie Sturgeon has sent me cover images of two of the three Avallone crime novels published only in England. (An earlier version of this post stated that all three are Ed Noon adventures, but only #2 and #3 are.)

1. The Killing Star. Robert Hale, 1969. Dust wrapper by Eileen Walton:

MICHAEL AVALLONE

Blurb: Five housewives butchered, horribly mutilated and on each terrible occasion, the unknown killer had marked the symbol of the Star of David on the door. What ancient and horrible vengeance was reaching out from the graves of Europe to announce a greater crime?

   Follow Detective Sam Swope on one of the most remarkable cases ever to tax the powers of “police procedure.” Learn as Sam Swope does that Death has many faces but the most savage mask of all has to be the one that comes in the guise of friendship, service and love. This is a raw and brutal book that is as contemporary as the morning’s murder.

Beginning the first chapter: High Noon. Now. Vietnam, race riots, Civil Rights battles. Taxes, irreverent movies, LSD trips for the unsophisticated and the foolish. Teenagers unsettled about how to cut their hair, how to dress — how to look. The cheats, the frauds, the second raters are having a field day at the expense of the victims. Music is struggling to sound coherent. The voice of the country is fighting the echoes of the unconstitutionality, alien reverberations and the shouts of doom from all sides.

   The Left, the Right and Dead Centre are at destructive odds. The big clocks, the little clocks and fifty million wrist watches toll and tick towards Infinity. Take a rocket to the moon, vote Medicare and honour thy father and mother as thyself and meanwhile – look out for Number One!

   The place. Your City and mine… Steepled, skylined, smog-filled, crime-filled and throbbing with immediacy. Concrete and common clay. General Motors products crowding the byways, jet planes thundering overhead, forests of T.V. antennae stabbing the unfriendly sky. What’s in it for me?

   This is the battle cry of the metropolis. The sun, the moon and the stars have no chance for survival. Poetry, Beauty, Honesty are but dreams. The winds, the rains, the storms lash and howl through the canyons of the skyscrapers. The Crooked City never sleeps. It is a big zoo, vibrating with the footsteps of the great white hunters. The metropolis is in the cross-haired sights of annihilation [...]

2. The Big Stiffs. Robert Hale, 1977. Ed Noon.

3. Dark on Monday. Robert Hale, 1978. Ed Noon.

MICHAEL AVALLONE

Blurb: The incredible crime wave began with a mysterious after-midnight telephone call to Manhattan Private Eye extraordinaire, Ed Noon – a death S.O.S. from an Irish dancer who looked Chinese. Then came the locust plague of poison-pen letters, a lethal swarm of brutality and terror which metamorphosed into an ugly chain of slaughtered Broadway showgirls.

   All of which made Noon a Monday worrier – the Ed Noon of the pre-President’s agent days, the Noon who still slept on the couch in his office, when the hit musical DRAGON TIME playing to SRO audiences on Times Square, was also the playground of one of the most viscous killers Ed Noon had ever encountered. A killer whose name would not be found in a fortune cookie…



BONUS: The Flower-Covered Corpse. Robert Hale, 1969, preceding the Curtis US paperback edition (1972).

MICHAEL AVALLONE

FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   Thanks to Turner Classic Movies I recently discovered a detective film series I had never heard of before. Before Midnight (RKO, 1933) debuted on TCM in June and starred a young Ralph Bellamy as Inspector Trent of the NYPD.

BEFORE MIDNIGHT Inspector Trent

   A procedural this ain’t: Trent comes out on a dark and stormy night to a Toad Hall fifty miles from New York City at the request of a millionaire who expects to be killed before the ancestral clock strikes twelve. Sure enough, the murder takes place, and Trent immediately takes over the investigation, such as it is, smoking up a storm as he interrogates the dead man’s lovely ward, the doctor who loves her, the enigmatic Japanese butler, the sleazy lawyer, etc. etc.

   Eventually, donning a white lab coat for forensic cred, he holds up two test tubes with blood samples in them and announces to his bug-eyed stooge that both came from the same person. How he managed to do that, generations before anyone ever heard of DNA, remains a mystery after the murder method (obvious to most viewers) and the murderer (obvious to all) are exposed.

   A bit of Web surfing taught me that Before Midnight was the first of four Inspector Trent films, all starring Bellamy and dating from 1933-34. The titles of the other three are One Is Guilty, The Crime of Helen Stanley and Girl in Danger.

   Columbia had released an earlier detective series with Adolphe Menjou as Anthony Abbot’s Police Commissioner Thatcher Colt but had dropped it after two films. The Trent series lasted twice as long but who today has ever heard of it? Bellamy of course went on to star in Columbia’s bottom-of-the-barrel series of Ellery Queen films (1940-41).

***

ELLERY QUEEN Penthouse Mystery

   Second of the four EQ films with Bellamy in the lead was Ellery Queen’s Penthouse Mystery (1941). For most of my life I was unsure whether this picture was based on any genuine Queen material.

   In Royal Bloodline I speculated that it might have come from one of the early Queen radio plays. Recently I learned that my hunch was right. Its source was the 60-minute drama “The Three Scratches” (CBS, December 13, 1939).

   Someday I’d love to compare the Dannay-Lee script with the infantile novelization of the film by some anonymous hack that was published as a tie-in with the movie, but unfortunately that script was not included in The Adventure of the Murdered Moths (2005).

***

   Does the name Peter Cheyney ring any bells? He was an Englishman (1896-1951), the son of a Cockney fishmonger who specialized in whelks and jellied eels.

   He had never visited the U.S. but in 1936 began writing a long series of thrillers narrated in first person by hardboiled G-Man Lemmy Caution, beginning with This Man Is Dangerous (1936).

PETER CHEYNEY Lemmy Caution

   For the most part these quickies were laughed off as unpublishable over here but became huge successes in England and also in France, where translation concealed Cheyney’s habit of peppering the dialogue of American characters with British slang, not to mention self-created idioms which are like nothing in any language known to humankind.

   The one that has stuck in my mind longest is “He blew the bezuzus,” which is not a musical instrument but just Cheyney’s way of saying “He spilled the beans.”

   According to Google the only known use of the word was in Sinclair Lewis’s novel Babbitt, where a character is said to have a degree from Bezuzus Mail Order University.

   Could Cheyney have read that acerbic satire on the American middle class or did he come up with the word independently? Googling “bezuzus” with Cheyney’s name produces no matches, but I suspect that situation will change as soon as this column is posted.

   With The Urgent Hangman (1938) Cheyney launched a series of utterly conventional ersatz-Hammett novels about London PI Slim Callaghan, and during World War II he wrote a series of rather bleak espionage novels, all with “Dark” in their titles and lavishly praised by Anthony Boucher and others.

   I don’t know if he’s worth rediscovering, but you can catch him as he looked in newsreel footage from 1946, dictating his then-latest thriller to a secretary, by going to www.petercheyney.co.uk and clicking first on “Links” and then on the image at the bottom of the screen.

***

   The mail has just brought me the proof copy of my latest assault on the forests of America. Cornucopia of Crime is a 449-page gargantua bringing together chunks of my writing over the past 40-odd years on mystery fiction and some of my favorites among its perpetrators, from Gardner and Woolrich and Queen to Cleve F. Adams and Milton Propper and William Ard, not to mention screwballs like Michael Avallone and mad geniuses like Harry Stephen Keeler.

   One small problem with this copy: on the title page the author’s name is conspicuous by its absence. This glitch will soon be corrected but I’m told that ten or twelve uncorrected copies are on the way to me by mail.

   If they arrive before I leave for the Pulpfest in Columbus, Ohio late next week, I plan to bring them with me and — assuming there are a few collectors in attendance who are in the market for perhaps the most limited edition of any book on mystery fiction ever published! — sell them off. Consider this an exclusive offer to Mystery*File habitues.

Editorial Comment. 07-22-10.   Inspired by David Vineyard’s comments on Peter Cheyney’s contributions to the world of crime fiction, I checked out the website devoted to him that Mike mentioned. It’s definitely worth a look. I especially enjoyed the covers, a portion of one I’ve added below. Who could resist a book with a lady like this on the cover? Not me.

   Artwork by John Pisani. For more, go here.

PETER CHEYNEY John Pisani

    It’s taken me longer than it should have, but this afternoon I finally finished the formatting of a checklist that should be of interest to everyone who reads and collects mysteries published during the Golden Age of Detection.

HARPER'S SEALED MYSTERIES

    Compiled by Victor Berch, the title is “A Checklist of HARPERS SEALED MYSTERY SERIES,” and to tempt you even more, here are the first two paragraphs of Victor’s introduction to the list:

    Following in the footsteps of Doubleday, Doran & Co.s entrance into the mystery series with its Crime Club series early in 1928, Harper Brothers introduced in 1929 an unusual concept for its series. Each publication was to have a certain portion of the mystery story sealed off from the reader at a climactic point in the story. If the reader wished to continue to discover the authors explanation and solution to the committed crime(s), the reader would then have to break the seal and read on.

    Should the reader lose interest in the authors story and returned the book to the bookseller with the seal intact, the reader would be refunded the cost of the book.

    This series of books, obviously very collectible today, was published between 1929 and 1934. The most prominent author included in the series was beyond a doubt John Dickson Carr, with nine books in the series (in six years!). It’s the cover of one of these that you see here up above. Other authors include Freeman Wills Crofts, Milton Propper, Mary Plum, Hulbert Footner and Albert Payson Terhune.

    Thanks to Bill Pronzini and his collection, covers of some two dozen or more are included. The list is too long to have posted on the blog. You’ll find it instead here on the main Mystery*File website. (Follow the link.)

    And just how many of the books were returned to Harper’s for a refund? You’ll have to read Victor’s article.

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