When J. Kingston Pierce of The Rap Sheet brought back the crime cover contest this year, we were delighted—so here's more from him, including a chance to share with you!
I come from a very visually oriented family—my father was an architect, my mother had worked in the field of technical drawing. And I remember well the first time I realized that book-cover design meant something special to me. It was in the early 1970s, when I was still a boy. I had purchased (for the then princely sum of 75 cents) a 1969 Ballantine paperback edition of Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 alien invasion novel, Childhood’s End. Subsequently, the same publisher released a revamped edition of that book (this time priced at $1.25!), which featured what I decided was a more captivating cover illustration. I promptly started saving coins enough to buy that new version, in addition, despite my mother’s protestations that it was not worth the price, that—save for the cover—they were the exact same book. I was less than eloquent in explaining why I needed both versions, but I did finally add them to my bookshelves.
My interest in book jackets has only grown since. It wasn’t long after I launched my crime fiction-oriented blog, in 2006, that I began writing about the state of the genre’s cover designs, which I often found wanting—especially as they demonstrated a tendency to use the same photos over and over, as if nobody would notice. In 2009, I introduced a second blog, Killer Covers, which focuses primarily on crime novel fronts, vintage as well as contemporary. And in between those start-ups, I debuted a competition to judge some of the best covers produced every year.
The Rap Sheet's cover contest for crime titles published during 2013 kicked off near the end of last month. It offered readers the choice of 15 jackets from crime, mystery, and thriller works. “All of them …,” I wrote by way of introduction, “are special in their own ways, whether it’s because of their typographical excellence, their bold imagery, or the manner in which they suggest the intensity of drama to be enjoyed between their covers.” And here are those finalists:
The nominees were works by: Frank Bill (Donnybrook), Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins (Complex 90), Harry St. John (Leave Her Hanging), Michael Gruber (The Return), Sarah Weinman (Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives), David Gordon (Mystery Girl), Walter Mosley (Little Green), Eleanor Catton (The Luminaries), Arlene Hunt (The Outsider), Dan O’Shea (Penance), Linda L. Richards (Death Was in the Blood), Derek B. Miller (Norwegian by Night), Warren Ellis (Gun Machine), Herman Koch (The Dinner), and Stephen King (Joyland).
In previous years, I’ve recruited other crime-fiction authorities to help select the contenders and—together with Rap Sheet readers—weigh their artistic merits. For 2013, though, I took on the whole task myself, conscious of what I had learned over the course of six previous match-ups.
Looking back, it’s not too difficult to identify commonalities between the biggest vote-getters. Previous winners—such as Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 in 2008 or Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection in 2009—tend to boast original and prominent illustrations, though the art is sometimes rather complicated (as it was on the 2007 frontrunner, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union). While photography seems to dominate book wrappers these days (Hard Case Crime’s handsomely painted covers being consistent exceptions to that rule), not once has a photo front scored first place in The Rap Sheet’s contest, though a few, such as the astonishing façade of Joe R. Lansdale’s Leather Maiden (2008), have earned spots among the runners-up. And all of the victorious jackets have made their typography—their titles and author bylines—integral components of the larger composition, whether it’s to help a small but important detail stand out more distinctly (as was accomplished with Penguin’s 2011 edition of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carré) or act understatedly in a way that allows a bolder central image to really “pop” (as was done on the 2010 English translation of Japanese author Shūichi Yoshida’s Villain.)
There’s no science to creating this sort of survey; judges bring their individual likes and dislikes to the process, as do readers who cast their votes. I don’t see all of the book jackets released every year, and neither do most other people, so it’s worth asking, What might I have missed? And will I later kick myself for having eliminated one of the early contestants from the herd? Fortunately, I rarely regret nixing a cover, though I have occasionally discovered a would-be wonder slightly too late for it to make the cut (as happened this year with Dublin author Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child).
Somewhat more often, I’m surprised—as I was this year, when a dark horse crept up steadily through the pack, scoring top honors by a nose. Which leaves me to recap The Rap Sheet’s 2013 Best Crime Fiction Covers champs (hint, they're all in the top row above):
1. Death Was in the Blood by Linda L. Richards
2. Mystery Girl by David Gordon
3. Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller
4. Complex 90 by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins
5. Joyland by Stephen King
If you would like to see how the votes broke between these 5 books and the other 10 covers in the running this year, follow this link and scroll down to the poll at the end. Also check out my comments on the 2013 cover contest.
Much has changed about the covers of crime, mystery, and thriller novels over the last half century. There was a time when provocatively attired (or less-dressed) women, heavily armed thugs, or voyeuristic imagery could sell paperbacks in profusion. Nowadays, as Peter Mendelsund, an associate art director with publisher Alfred A. Knopf once told me, it’s not enough for covers to simply be different; they have to look “wicked cool and awesome.” I’d say that all of The Rap Sheet’s big vote-getters for 2013 satisfied that criterion. They also put pressure on me, and anybody else I enlist to aid in judging next year’s challenge, to come up with a no-less-alluring shortlist of rivals. It’s a good thing I have already spotted a couple of potential 2014 candidates.
This Sweepstakes has ended.
To enter for a chance to win one of three hardcover copies of Complex 90 by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins (with all the pages, and not just the fancy cover included), make sure you're a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.
TIP: Since only comments from registered users will be tabulated, if your user name appears in red above your comment—STOP—go log in, then try commenting again. If your user name appears in black above your comment, You’re In! Complex 90 Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. A purchase does not improve your chances of winning. Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry. To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at https://www.criminalelement.com/blogs/2014/02/the-rap-sheet-2013-crime-novel-cover-contest-please-judge-these-books-finalists-j-kingston-pierce beginning at 10:00 a.m. Eastern Time (ET) February 28, 2014. Sweepstakes ends 9:59 a.m. ET March 7, 2014. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.
J. Kingston Pierce lives in Seattle. He’s the editor of The Rap Sheet, the senior editor of January Magazine, and the lead crime-fiction blogger for Kirkus Reviews. In addition, he has penned more than half a dozen non-fiction books, including San Francisco: Yesterday & Today (2009), Eccentric Seattle (2003), and America’s Historic Trails with Tom Bodett (1997).