Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Paperback Novelties: Criminal Menace

I often check out Killer Covers, out of my fascination with pop culture as represented by old crime fiction paperbacks. At the risk of intruding on this blog's territory a bit, here are four 40s/50s cover variations on the theme of menace.

Kill and Tell, by Howard Rigsby (1951; Pocket Book edition 1953)

Dramatic cover of an attractive woman menaced in telephone booth.  The color red calculatedly highlights the woman's lips and breasts.

All we see of the man is a hand, but that's enough, along with the terror in the woman's eyes, to convey menace.

The Scarlet Slippers, by James M. Fox (1952; Dell edition 1953)

Here we have a live woman (bosom) and, presumably, a dead one (legs).  Again the color red, along with turquoise blue, is present to highlight features of female anatomy (and the scarlet slippers themselves are a fetish object).

Off to the side we have another menacing male, this time depicted in full. But here we sense from the man a calm and cool menace, as suggested by that cigarette, which he smokes with such an air of laconic arrogance.

Is he a detective? Blackmailer? Murderer?

Dead as a Dummy, by Geoffrey Homes (aka The Hill of the Terrified Monk) (1943; Bantam edition 1949)

Note first the change to a pithier, alliterative title.  Here the object of menace is a man, except....get a load of what he's holding.

That's no dame, that's a dummy!  And what a dummy!

Note: Geoffrey Homes was the pseudonym of Daniel Mainwaring (1902-1977), best known for the novel Build My Gallows High (1946), adapted by Mainwaring into the classic noir film Out of the Past (1947).

The Judas Cat, by Dorothy Salisbury Davis (1949, Bantam edition 1951; recently reviewed by John Norris)

Here the woman (in red) is being shielded by a man. There's not immediate menace, but it may be out there, reflected in the glare of the man's flashlight.

The man and woman are investigating as a team. The man is gentler looking then many of his fellows on crime paperbacks, with a flashlight in his hand rather than a (ahem!) rod. It's significant, I think, that this is the only book of the four that was written by a woman.  I think the artist was trying to appeal to more of a female readership with this cover.

Note too this is the only book of the four that bothers to carry a critical blurb on the cover (this approach is carried on in the back, where, under the headline NEWCOMER RATED TOPS, we find critical blurbs from our old friends --see previous blog pieces--Judge Lynch of the Saturday Review, Anthony Boucher and Craig Rice).

I wonder which cover most appeals to you?


  1. I have to give the nod to Dead as a Dummy. It has it all!

  2. The first two, from Pocket and Dell, are both the work of James Meese; you can see a gallery of his work on Flickr. I've always liked Meese's draughtsmanship and he illustrated a lot of books around this time. "Dead as a Dummy"'s illustrator is Ray Johnson, as yet unknown to me, and "The Judas Cat"'s illustrator is not known.

    There's a quality about "Kill and Tell"'s art that may be surprising to the uninitiated. Paperbacks in those days were sold in spinning racks and, at newsstands, facing out on shelves. In both cases the bottom half of the book was not usually visible; this is why book titles usually occupy the top third of the cover. And note how the very top of each book cover has a blurb that pretty much reveals the genre.

    For "Kill and Tell", I would be willing to believe that the book was designed -- engineered quite precisely -- to have the woman's frightened eyes peeping out above the concealment of a panel holding the book in place. This would make people want to pick the book up to see what was being shown. Retail booksellers will tell you that if you can get the book into the prospective customer's hands, you're three-quarters of the way to selling it, so designing the product to entice people to pick it up is always a good idea.

    1. Thanks for the detail, Noah. Those first two cover illustrations do seem related, with the reaching arms and startled glances.

  3. That DEAD AS A DUMMY is truly delirious! Thaks for that - cheered me right up ...

    1. Sergio, it reminds me a little of Lars and the Real Girl:

  4. I love paperback covers too, although I lean towards those with skeletons or skulls. Killer Covers is a favorite site. My fave is Kill and Tell. Like the title too.

    1. That cover does compel one to read the book, I think.

  5. It's a close call but I'll go with KILL AND TELL. A close runner up is DEAD AS A DUMMY, but the other two are almost as nice. (If nice is the right word for what's going on in each of them.)