I do judge books, despite the well-worn proverb, by their covers. I judge them by their creative flair or their uninspired “just slap a massive gun on it and ship it to the stores” laziness. I judge them by their logos, either in homage to a theme or a period, or by the dull standards of current mass-market thriller ubiquitousness, where it seems almost every book bears the same tedious, blocky, occasionally embossed typeface as the next. In an era where the e-book has begun its takeover and sandwich-board wearing prophets proclaim “the death of the book,” cover design is, along with pricing, paramount (unless like Penguin, you strip your covers back to a simple, single, striking design and charge peanuts for it, which is also a great move).
This “death of the book” hysteria is nonsense. What we are witnessing is the death of the mass market book as physical object. Do you really care that Dan Brown paperbacks will one day cease to exist? If so, you shouldn’t – if DB somehow floats your particular boat, you can buy a sumptuous, oversized, lovingly designed hardback for your shelf and carry an e-version wherever you go.
Here in Australia, more often than not, I cannot buy in stores the kind of crazed pulp that I like to read. So I’m forced by budget and impatience, as well as frustration at distributors for not realising that nobody here wants to pay thirty dollars for a paperback, to ship from overseas. Sometimes, these books do turn up in stores, all bearing alternate covers. United Kingdom covers. Sometimes, they are better. Sometimes they are not. We’re going to look at a few and duke it out in international crime book design warfare.
Aesthetes, don your specs, uncork your Beaujolais and let’s get it on! Which nation shall reign supreme?
(Disclaimer: there are obviously more than two covers for many of these books. I’m going by the most common.)
(Disclaimer 2: So yes, before anyone complains – yes, I do know about the deluxe, limited, signed edition of What It Was that looks absolutely gorgeous and I highly recommend from pictures alone and is actually on its way to my apartment right now. We’re only doing large print-run editions here, I’m afraid.)
FIRST FIGHT: The End of Everything by Megan Abbott
Megan Abbot has had the terrific fortune to have incredibly striking and appropriate cover art and design on her books right from the very start with pulp artist Richie Fahey creating strikingly noirish pieces that were so good, nobody on either side of the pond fucked with them very much at all. With The End of Everything marking a stylistic change in her writing as well as a significant shifting of period, Megan confessed to me, quite sadly, that Richie wasn’t the man for the job. Thus:
THE US VERSION:
Well, it’s…a cover.
I suppose it conveys a certain kind of youthful suburban dreaminess, but at the end of the day, designer Julianna Lee failed to convey much of anything other than the fact the girl swimming has a really cute bathing suit. It is Megan’s “crossover” book and at least it, through the absence of Richie more than anything else, makes that perfectly clear. I should admit, I have a Fahey print hanging in my bedroom, so there might be a touch of sourness here from me…I also think he still coulda pulled it off.
THE UK VERSION:
Similarly, but more effectively, dreamy, certainly more eye-catching, still not exactly saying very much, but at least I don’t screw my face up when I look at it. It’s at least pretty. The clear attempt to do something sun-drenched and retro, from the saturated colours to the simple lower case logo is appreciated. If there’s one real drawback here, it’s that there isn’t much of a hint at the darkness to be found within the pages.
WINNER: UK by Split Decision
SECOND FIGHT: Nobody Move by Denis Johnson
Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move is a hoot, a fast, slim, wise-cracking ride. So what’s up with…
THE UK COVER:
Easy enough on the eye, but a prime example of design laziness. If there’s anything more hackneyed than a smoking gun on a cover, it’s an old car on a highway. Jesus Christ – somebody actually got paid to do this. Take a pic, fuck around with the colour scheme, slap a giant title on it, note that its author is prize-winning, and voila. Hinting at ominousness, in complete opposition to the novel’s tone, this is quite the low blow of a cover.
I say Boo, UK, BOO!
THE US COVER:
Here’s the truth – I could’ve bought the UK version of this book in a remainders shop for five dollars. Instead, I paid twenty for the US version in another shop because this cover is so damn sexy and I despise design laziness. Still this cover manages to sneak in the award notification (along with a quote by the awesome Sarah Weinman) and giant lettering, but unpretentiously smuggled in with its old school comic vibe and its faux creases. “But Cam,” you say. “This cover features a chick in a bikini holding a smoking gun. You’ve ridiculed gun use twice already.”
True, but like soccer kicks permitted in the old Pride Fighting Championships, the depiction of a smoking gun, used in pulp homage as opposed to a creative roadblock, is not only permitted, but encouraged. This is a fun, vibrant cover that playfully updates an old noir/hardboiled vibe. Just like the book itself.
WINNER: US by KO
THIRD FIGHT: WHAT IT WAS by George Pelecanos
And here we have a possibly controversial main event (the best kind). Currently sitting atop my TBR pile – George Pelecanos’ What It Was. We have two pretty decent covers here, separated, ultimately, by cleverness. In all fairness though, I’m pleased to see that neither edition has relied on the standard cover design each country has typically employed for Pelecanos – his UK covers have been particularly average of late: blocky The Wire-esque font for the author (which is fair enough, I suppose, considering his involvement), combined with some fairly uninspired imagery, making them look not unlike every other crime book on the shelf.
Kudos to both countries for shaking things up a bit. In many ways, the two best covers in this column belong to this very book.
I really do like this cover a lot. Simple and clean, its bisected muscle car lovingly and colourfully rendered, its simple logo, the whole thing recalls old Penguin paperbacks of the ‘70s and ‘80s. I’m particularly reminded of old Elmore Leonard and Eugene Izzi editions, yellowing away on my shelf. It would be a clear winner, if not for…
THE UK COVER:
Remember in Coffy when Pam Grier smuggled razor blades in her huge afro so that when the inevitable catfight rolled around, and some sister went the hair-pull her hands got all sliced up? Yeah? Well, look what this chick’s got stashed in her ‘fro – an entire universe of seventies crime. We have the muscle car here, we have an assortment of shady criminals – the whole thing looks rather like a cosmic-free Jim Starlin Captain Marvel splash page from the ‘70s. We also have a nice, uncommon brown base colour, a simple yet clear logo. It’s unique, befitting a writer of Pelecanos’ standing, and, trust me, Yanks, it stands out on the shelf.
WINNER: UK by massive afro.
So at the end of the night, we have UK topping US 2-1.
Can the US bounce back next time when we return with books by Duane Swierzcynski, Shiuichi Yoshida and Sarah Gran? Tune in to find out!