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The Covers of Hard Case Crime
Looking over two of the most recent book covers from Hard Case Crime (HCC) you can’t help but see a pattern. The Comedy Is Finished by Donald E. Westlake has a gorgeous painted cover from Gregory Manchess, and False Negative by Joseph Koenig has its own delightful image from Hard Case Crime stalwart Glen Orbik. Aside from being fantastically well made, both covers feature women in the primary roles. Both women are also naked with modesty only being retained via strategically placed hair or a sheet.
The question becomes, why does the naked woman trope fit so well onto the cover of a pulp crime novel?
You could argue it is to elicit a titillated response from the reader but is that really true? Do pulp crime readers come to these books for the salacious thrills? Possibly some, but I’d argue this isn’t the point of the nakedness. The bare flesh of nubile ladies isn’t there for sexual tension but is rather aiming to heighten the real violent tension of the story. These covers show that in two separate ways.
In the end, we must concede, men love naked women. This is an extremely broad generalisation but it holds true across most cultures, media, etc. If you add a naked woman to something – a calendar, a car, a music video – it will hold more attention and be more alluring on a base level. Everyone knows this and many exploit it but Hard Case Crime attempt to honestly use it.
The cover to The Comedy Is Finished shows a completely naked lady (expect for the glasses) brandishing a gun in front of a man tied to a chair, and presumably beaten while there. There is tension evident through the man’s defeated posture while tied to a chair with a gun held somewhere in his line of vision. The threat of death and pain is soaked all over this cover. So why does it need the violent member of this image to also be an attractive female with no clothes on?
Simple, because it is confusing and alluring exactly when it should not be. I have no doubt nine out of ten eyes will notice the naked woman before the beaten man. The male brain is drawn to the flesh because we desire it so much. This then makes you wonder, is the man – the poor man waiting to die – thinking the same thing as he looks at what we see? I highly doubt it and this conflict in his brain makes the scenario all the more terrible.
This man is going to die at the hands of an example of something he no doubt loves completely – a strange and naked woman. Naked women aren’t generally related to violence and so when they are the juxtaposition smashes into the male brain like a runaway train going downhill. This cover works on a visceral level to actually heighten the drama of the violent situation.
The naked woman holding the gun is more scary because it is something we inherently love trying to brutally murder us. The male brain understands this as a wrong on a more grand level.
False Negative uses nudity to also elevate the stakes of the drama of the story but in a completely opposite way.
Our female lead here is also the centre stage member of this image while still sharing it with another – also a man. There is a sense of danger on this painting but it doesn’t come from a weapon, it is more alluded to from the context of the image and the known genre of the book. This lady holds a sheet up to her chest and stares at the camera held by the man with a mixture of desire and alarm in her eyes. She is a knowing participant in these events so one should assume she is not in any real or present danger and yet the look in her eyes weaves a different spell.
However, you are not here to unravel the mystery on the very first encounter, instead the cover is presented to make you invested. Why? Well, as like before, because the woman is naked. Naked and possibly being exploited. Whereas the cover for The Comedy Is Finished makes us conflicted about the violence because of the stripped back approach to the female here there is no confliction, we instantly feel this is wrong. Again, we love a naked women and so if she is to be wronged we instantly want to protect her. This might be archaic thinking but it is also instinctual. Neither cover is aiming for the logical centres of your brain, rather it aims to elicit an evocative response.
Both covers are aimed at men and thus manipulate the psychology of male brains. They lure us in with the female form and then twist our emotions to suit their needs. It is especially interesting that both covers feature men in the foreground facing away from the audience. Both men also face the naked females. Yet one is placed in a position for us to empathise with while the other becomes a form of scrutiny instantly. We want to know if the man behind the camera is as honest as he should be when accepting the trust of a female.
These covers use female nudity to scare us and to make us puff out and become protectors. This shows the diverse and applied way HCC uses nudity with meaning in their covers.
Hard Case Crime always has great covers on their books and they also nearly always feature women – women undressed, women alluring. The publisher isn’t aiming to pointlessly exploit the female form, they are aiming to utilise it to accentuate the main thrust of their product; tension. These are crime books, not romance novels, and as such the target audience is men who like their men hard and habits hard to break. A little titillation is merely the soupcon on the main course, enjoy the flavour.