Judging Books By Their Covers

Brian Dettmer Book Dissection
Maybe this one is about making perfect tapas?
Two of my great loves are reading and eating.  I find both very satisfying and, with the exception of sleeping, I’d rather do either of them than just about anything else.  When I approach either a book or a meal, however, I anticipate certain experiences and no matter how delectable the fare, if it doesn’t fulfill those expectations, I feel cheated.  After all, when you want a grilled cheese sandwich, goat cheese and prosciutto on a baguette won’t do the trick.  They’re both delicious, but they’re not the same thing.

Our expectations of various genres of books are frequently referred to as conventions. One of the best, and funniest explanations of genre conventions I’ve ever read is Rob Lopresti’s “Cliffhangers”.  Some who sneer at those of us who read genre fiction say that the books are mere formulas made up of convention after convention.  If you’re reading this, you know that such is not the case.  And yet, there is a hint of truth to the criticisms that most of us don’t like to recognize.  After all, what do you find satisfying about the kinds of books you read?  Is it the happily-ever-after of a romance?  The good guys prevailing in a police procedural?  The slow revelation of puzzle pieces in a mystery?  The heart-pounding ticking clock of a thriller?  Whatever it is, chances are when you’re in the mood to read one type of book, nothing else will satisfy. 

Rob jokes about the conventions of “dog stories,” “cat mysteries” and “cozies,” but in reality, all those have their place in the mystery world.  And much as the old saying “never judge a book by its cover” has some truth, frequently you can do just that.  Take these four books, each by one of my favorite authors, each of which belongs in the general “mystery and thriller” category and each of which has strong romantic elements despite being not being a romance per se.

Covers of Dirty Rotten Tendrils by Kate Collins, Murder with Peacocks by Donna Andrews, Hard Row by Margaret Maron, All Fall Down by Carlene Thompson
Dirty Rotten Tendrils by Kate Collins, Murder with Peacocks by Donna Andrews, Hard Row by Margaret Maron, All Fall Down by Carlene Thompson

The stories and conventions of these books range in darkness almost as much as their covers do.  Both Kate Collins and Donna Andrews write cozies.  Thus I know that the violence will take place off-stage and that the stories will have a certain level of humor.  Those are two of the conventions of the cozy (or traditional) mystery I find particularly appealing.  When I’m tired of books that invite me to view the inside of a serial killer’s mind (a frequent convention of the thriller), I turn to the cozy. 

And then there’s the in-between, for readers who like something a tiny bit harder than the cozy, but can’t quite force themselves to read hard-boiled, police procedurals, or thrillers: the soft-boiled novel.  In that genre, I’ll buy anything Margaret Maron writes.  Again, the cover gives a clue.  I’ve chosen Hard Row for this because it is one of Maron’s darker series books.  The crime and its motivation are both dreadful, too serious for a cozy, and there are no overtly funny scenes, but the book is still a character-driven, clue-filled mystery, not a thriller.

Carlene Thompson’s books are not cozy.  They’re not even comfortable.  Unlike traditional mysteries or cozies, thrillers and romantic suspense novels are frequently standalones.  You meet the protagonist at the beginning of the book, and at the end their story is complete.  A romantic suspense will frequently give you the most satisfying “happily ever after” of anything in the mystery genre both because the romantic element guarantees a hopeful ending and because the climax is apt to tie up all the characters’ issues.  In a traditional mystery, because the sleuth usually appears in multiple books, while the mystery is solved at the end, personal threads may remain tangled.

These are only a tiny sample of the types of mysteries out there and what you may (or may not) find in them.  What are some of your favorites and why?

Laura K. Curtis lives in Westchester, NY, with her husband and 3 dogs who’ve taught her how easily love can co-exist with the desire to kill.  She blogs at Women of Mystery and maintains an online store at TorchSongs GlassWorks.  She can also be found on Twitter and poking her nose into all sorts of trouble in various spots around the web.


  1. Rob Lopresti

    Wow, what a nice surprise! i opened this blog to see the latest entry and it was partly about me. Thanks so much. may I add a link to the Cliffhangers article you mnetion? It is at http://criminalbrief.com/?p=8204

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Laura K. Curtis

    Thanks, Rob! I had it in there but for some reason, I think it got eaten! So I’m glad other people will get a chance to read it. It made me giggle like a maniac!

  3. Clare 2e

    Sorry, all. It WAS in there before and was meant to be. Fixed now. What’s the emoticon for technical snafu?

  4. Katrina Niidas Holm

    I’ll admit, when I’m browsing in a bookstore, more often than not I rely on a good cover to help me choose my next read. And takes a really good book to overcome a bad cover…

  5. Laura K. Curtis

    OMG, yes, niidasholm! A bad cover on a good book is a terrible thing.

  6. John Dax

    I absolutely have “judged a book by its cover” in the past if by that you mean this: a cover was sufficiently compelling enough to pick up the book and flip it over to read the book description. I think everyone does this, and it is perfectly normal.

    I’ve read some awful books with great covers, and I’ve read some great books with awful covers. It’s just one more indicator, like book reviews or recommendations from friends or past experiences from the same author. Any of these things can be helpful, or not.

    [url=http://www.judgingabookbyitscover.com]Judging a Book by Its Cover[/url]

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