Sunday, 10 September 2017

Just how cool are those great book covers?

The focus is squarely on crime fiction today.

A timely thing, I suppose, with the publication of my next crime novel, SHADOWS, just around the corner. But we’re also going to have a bit of a chat this week about book covers – and what makes a good one. To illustrate things, but also for a bit of fun, I’ve put together a gallery of my 25 best ever crime novel covers. You can find that a bit further down. 

Also on the subject of crime fiction – but at the really hard end of the spectrum – I’m offering a detailed review of Sam Hawken’s amazingly bleak and chilling debut novel, THE DEAD WOMEN OF JUAREZ. As usual, you can find that at the lower end of today’s column.

Cover story

The first thing to say is that it’s amazing how divisive book covers can be. They don’t just divide fans and readers, they can divide writers from agents and agents from publishers.

Essentially, a book cover is a work of visual art, so there is always going to be a degree of dispute. It’s in the eye of the beholder; it’s a purely subjective exercise. Of course, this doesn’t stop writers being upset when their books are allocated artwork they don’t like, though by this stage of the operation, the publishers are generally more interested in what the readers think, and they’ll have attempted to anticipate this by taking detailed reports from their market-research people beforehand, will have studied the sales figures for recent similar products, and so forth (something the writer will almost never have done).

Of course, it it all goes wrong then, and the public don’t buy, the publishers can still fall back on that timeless and excellent adage: You can’t judge a book by its cover … which will likely do nothing to placate the disgruntled writer who hated the cover in the first place, though the irony is that this famous old saying so often reflects reality.

You really CAN’T judge a book by its cover, even though we’re all regularly guilty of doing exactly that. It’s astounding how often a poor book is ‘bigged up’ by an extraordinary cover, though maybe it’s more frequently the case that a incredible book is lost behind a rather ordinary cover.   

To get to the root of this knotty problem, the real question that perhaps needs addressing here is what purpose does a book’s cover actually serve?

Well, to start with – and this is purely my own opinion, of course (though I always welcome others) – the cover’s job is not to paraphrase what’s in the book. Nor is it to tease you about what’s in the book. It’s not even to try and sell the book.

The book’s cover has one purpose only: to attract your attention while you’re wandering the endless aisles of books-for-sale; to literally make you stop in your tracks, take the book from the shop shelf and examine it more closely. At that point, the cover’s job is done. From here on, the back-cover blurb takes over. Yes, it’s the blurb, not the cover, whose job it is to make you buy.

But the upshot of all this is that the best book covers must, at the very least, be eye-catching. An effective cover has got to depict something that will hook you in an instant. And that doesn’t have to be something totally relevant to the book, though I think most publishers would consider it a bit naughty if the cover was completely irrelevant. In my view – and again it’s only my personal view – that would be mis-selling the book.

For example, check out this famously outrageous Brazilian edition of Stephen King’s The Shining. Now, there is a strong and attractive woman in the The Shining – Wendy Torrance, but I don’t remember full-on glam and glitzy jewellery having much part to play.

Only the good stuff

But I digress. We’re less interested today in trashy covers, and more interested in really good ones. I’ve been fortunate throughout my career to date to have had what I consider to be some pretty effective artwork gracing the covers of my novels. I think my favourite is still SACRIFICE (2013), the second Mark Heckenburg novel, which concerns a series of kidnappings followed by sacrificial murders occurring in concert with certain dates in the calendar. The original Avon cover can be viewed at the top of this column, and strongly hints at the crime/horror combo which made this book the fastest selling pre-order in HarperCollins history at the time. 

But I’m also a big fan of the jacket to my new title, SHADOWS, which can be seen here. This is number two in the Lucy Clayburn series, and has perhaps a more down-to-Earth emphasis, throwing a young female cop into the tough male world of the Manchester Robbery Squad and pitting her against a gang of relentless and ultra-violent blaggers.

But I don’t want to use this blog just to talk about me all the time, and, as I mentioned at the top, I thought today might be an opportunity to throw the net more widely and focus on some of the other truly excellent book covers that I’ve encountered over the years. This blog normally concerns itself with what I call ‘dark fiction’ – which is a general term for a very big field. So today, for the sake of brevity, we’re going to concentrate on crime fiction covers. My intent, in a couple of weeks or so, is to look at the best thriller covers, perhaps after that the best horror covers, and then maybe the best fantasy, the best science fiction and so forth.

But, as I said, for today, we’re sticking solely with what in my opinion, in no particular order, are …   

The best 25 crime fiction covers ever …

(One quick point: I’ve only selected this gallery from English language editions – if I was to scour the whole world of published works, I couldn’t even get close to assembling a realistic list within an acceptable time-frame).

1. POPPET - Mo Hayder 
(Bantam, 2013)

One of the creepiest crime covers ever jackets this seventh outing for DI Jack Caffery, in which he investigates a series of ghastly incidents occurring inside a secure hospital for the criminally insane. It’s every bit as disturbing as its cover suggest, but what can I say?, Hayder doesn’t do vanilla crime ...

2. NIGHT DOGS - Kent Anderson 
(Bantam, 1998)

Sheer savagery promises from this jacket, and that’s exactly what you get when a battle-scarred Vietnam vet trades his combat fatigues for a badge with Portland PD, only to find the gunfire-riddled North Precinct one of the most dangerous beats in the city, especially when not every other cop you’re working with has got your back ...

3. THE HOODS - Harry Grey  
(Crown, 1952)

A very to-the-point illustration makes no bones about what you’re going to find in this largely fact-based study of a crime syndicate’s rise to power in New York City of the bootlegger era. Controversial on its release, and very hard to find now, though most crime fans will know it from the epic movie adaptation: Once Upon a Time in America ...

4. HALLOWEEN PARTY - Agatha Christie 
(Fontana, 1980)

Originally published in 1969 by the Collins Crime Club, this later but famously horrific cover from Fontana nicely encapsulates an equally horrific premise, one of the most chilling ever in fact, with ex-Brussels police detective-turned-PI, Hercule Poirot, called on to investigate the deliberate drowning of a child in an apple-bobbing tub during a tempestuous Halloween party ...

5. THE AXEMANS JAZZ - Ray Celestin 
(Pan, 2015)

As you’d probably expect from this amazing artwork, the New Orleans of 1919 - the sights, the sounds and even the smells - come vibrantly to life in this amazing debut novel. It also pits a trio of disparate individuals against the true life maniac who terrorised the city during that long hot summer, the notorious Mad Axeman ...

6. ENTER THE DARK - Chris Thomas 
(Bloodhound, 2017)

Just in case you needed reminding about those faceless enemies of civilisation who always seem to lurk in the dark places of the internet, up steps Chris Thomas with a cover that more than does his new book justice. Mix advanced proficiency online, high-level cybercrime and a frightened world’s unspoken desire for vigilante justice, and you have a real terror tale. Here is is ...

7. GET CARTER - Ted Lewis 
(Soho Syndicate, 2014)

Originally published as the seminal Jacks Return Home in 1970 by Michael Joseph (and that was a pretty spiffing cover too), this is the latest re-issue of the crime classic, and my favourite to date. Grimy northern England of the late ’60s is the setting as London enforcer Jack Carter returns home to investigate the mysterious death of his brother ... 

(Doubleday, 1947)

An odd cover given the premise of the story, but undeniably eerie and eye-catching. The novel, now recognised as a classic of crime fiction’s ‘golden age’, features a bunch of military men on a remote base, and sees them passing the time by piecing together a murder mystery, and its solution, from fragments of newspaper packaging. Ingeniously clever ...

9. DIRTBAGS - Eryk Pruitt 
(Immortal Ink, 2014) 

More than a hint on offer here of the Southern Noir nightmare that erupts when two trailer trash losers, each one a violent psychopath in his own right, dream of being serial killers, and one day get the chance to make fantasy reality when they are hired to carry out a brutal assassination. Yes, it’s absolutely as hard and gritty as this jacket will lead you to expect ...

10. THE DOLL MAKER - Richard Montanari 
(Sphere, 2015)

If this one implies that you’re in for a tale of ‘crime meets body-horror’, then you aren’t far wrong, as Montanari’s regular detectives, Byrne and Balzano, scour Philadelphia in pursuit of the charming, erudite and completely crazy Mr Marseille, who will do anything for his beloved Anabelle, no matter how horrifying ... 

11. HOW THE DEAD LIVE - Derek Raymond 
(Melville International, 2011)

First published by Secker and Warburg in 1986 as Book 3 in the Factory series, but repackaged here, this is a suitably oblique cover for a rather oblique novel. Philosophy and violence entwine as an unnamed but very hard-boiled detective sergeant investigates a disappearance from a scenic English village which, in truth, is rotten to the core ...

12. THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY - Patricia Highsmith 
(WW Norton, 2008)

Known by many for the 1999 movie version starring Matt Damon, this classic 1955 psychological thriller still stands the test of time, hence the above re-issue and its rather marvellous new cover. Originally published by Coward-McCann, it tells the tale of a young conman who murders a rich playboy, assumes his identity and settles back to enjoy the good life. Except it can’t be that easy ...

13. THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE - George V Higgins 
(Picador, 2010)

A ‘says it all’ jacket for the 40th Anniversary edition of this underworld masterpiece. Originally published in 1972, it tells the distinctly non-glamorous tale of a small-time gunrunner working for the Irish mob, who, to save his own skin, turns informer for Boston law-enforcement, making himself plenty of deadly enemies in the process ...

14. THE BONE KEEPER - Luca Veste 
(Simon & Schuster, 2018)

A sneak peek of what is likely to be one of next year’s big releases. Luca Veste steps away from his Murphy and Rossi crime series to produce a stand-alone nightmare (the horror elements of which are clearly signalled by the image above) in which Liverpool cops gather gory evidence suggesting that semi-mythical bogeyman, the Bone Keeper, might actually be real ...

15. THE DEVIL - Ken Bruen 
(Minotaur, 2010)

A suitably infernal cover for no. 8 in the Jack Taylor series. For the uninitiated, anti-hero Taylor, a hard-drinking, self-loathing mess of an Irish PI, finally meets his ultimate nemesis when his investigation following a crazed killing leads him into conflict with an enemy who may be the Dark One himself ...

16. THE ASHES OF LONDON - Andrew Taylor
(HarperCollins, 2017)

As a history buff, this is one of the best covers I’ve ever seen. For the very first time, Scotland Yard - in this case a propaganda office in the Palace of Whitehall - is called on to investigate a chilling ritual murder. The main problem though, is that it’s 1666, and London is burning to the ground. A classic mystery, set against a backdrop of sedition, sectarianism and simmering revolutionary fervour ...

17. MISSING - Sam Hawken
(Serpents Tail, 2014)

You want Satanic levels of evil, don’t read books about the Devil, check out the Mexican cartels. The voodoo-esque cover here, richly redolent of gang violence, pseudo-religion and nihilistic horror, makes a perfect jacket for this amazing effort by the author featured in today’s ‘Thrillers, Chillers’. A Texan searches for his wayward stepdaughters when they go missing over the border. Utterly grim ..

18. VILLAIN - Shuichi Yoshida
 (Pantheon, 2010)

Great metaphorical image for a book that I, personally, would have had no idea how to illustrate. When a young saleswoman is murdered, an entire town comes under scrutiny - and is found lacking on almost every level. An Asian Noir by a very acclaimed Japanese writer, but at the same time, a ‘no prisoners’ slice of penetrating social commentary ...

19. THE HOLLOW MAN - John Dickson Carr 
(Hamish Hamilton, 1935)

If this one doesn’t make you buy the book, we might as well all go home, but I shall try to encourge you anyway. Carr, known as one of the greatest suspense authors of his generation, presents us with a bamboozling conundrum, which, even now, is regarded as so clever a ‘locked room’ mystery that it is widely seen, even in the 21st century, as a textbook for crime writers ...

(William Morrow, 1991)

If this image makes you think that whatever the outcome of this novel, it ain’t going to be an easy ride ... well, you’ve guessed it. Another outing for Matt Scudder, Block’s tired but morally upright NYPD-turned-PI, who here investigates the murder of a depraved rich man’s wife, a case that takes him on a warts-and-all tour of the Big Apple’s sex-for-sale underground. Strong stomachs required ...

21. MURDER AS A FINE ART - David Morrell
(Mulholland, 2013)

Top hats, gaslights and ghoulish slayings in Victorian London. That’s what you expect with a cover like this, and yes ... that’s exactly what you get. David Morrell takes us convincingly back to the mid-Dickensian era in this first Thomas de Quincey novel, evoking the horror of the true life Ratcliffe Highway Murders with a series of fictional copycat crimes decades later. Totally immersive mystery.

22. RUPTURE - Ragnar Jonasson
(Orenda, 2017)

Another slice of Icelandic Noir from an author who is rapidly becoming the master of that form. Every box is ticked: a bleak world, a small, isolated community, a long-ago mystery which has never been resolved, a current crime spree echoing it, lots of unspoken secrets and a growing terrible threat that may render all of this redundant. It does exactly what it says on the tin ...

23. MURDERABILIA - Craig Robertson
(Simon & Schuster, 2017)

With his detective partner in bed, pregnant, Glasgow crime reporter Tony Winter (a Robertson regular) takes centre-stage when another horrible murder needs investigating. This time, though, the case touches on levels of darkness previously untapped, specifically the gruesome trade in crime memorabilia as perpetrated on the Deep Web. Yet again, the cover tells you all you need to know ...

24. GREEN RIVER RISING - Tim Willocks
(Avon, 1994)

A fearful insider’s view of a terrifying prison riot, as engineered by a madman in one of the toughest jails Texas has to offer. Probably the most intense novel on this list, but very human too, the various maniacs given to us in full 3D rather than as evil cardboard cut-outs. (Not sure if this was the original hardback cover, or a later version. Perhaps some kind soul can enlighten me?) ...

25. RED HARVEST - Dashiell Hammett
(Alfred Knopf, 1929)

Hammett’s first crime novel, and still one of his best. The legendary ‘Continental Op’, a tough-as-teak private eye tackles the various goon squads who have taken charge of an industrial city on America’s West Coast. As hard-boiled as it gets, unstinting in the matters of murder, violence, drugs, alcohol, etc. But if this awsome period cover doesn’t draw you in, frankly, nothing will ...



An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

by Sam Hawken (2012)

Ciudad Juárez is a Mexican border-town where something akin to a national disaster is being played out.

Since the early 1990s (in real life as well as in this powerful work of fiction), at least 5,000 young women, mostly prostitutes, students or assembly line employees in the maquiladoras – US-owned car-making plants where sweatshop conditions are the norm – have vanished. In many cases they have never been seen again, but a significant number have reappeared in shallow graves or on city dumps, murdered and displaying signs of extreme sexual torture.

Whether it’s the work of a serial killer, or multiple serial killers, or dope gangs, or sex tourists, or who knows what, it’s a hideous mystery which endures right to this day.

It’s difficult to understand how something like this can go on unchecked in the 21st century, but Juárez is a town with all kinds of problems, not least the cartels who fight each other daily up and down its bullet-scarred streets, the persistence of corruption in institutions like the police and local government, the prevalence of drugs and drug addicts, and the hordes of reckless American turistas who flood across the border every evening to drink and whore themselves senseless.

It is against this tragic but hellish backdrop that Texas author, Sam Hawken, tells his tale of two deeply-flawed men: Kelly Courter, an American boxer now long past his best, and Detective Rafael Sevilla, an alcoholic narcotics cop who is close to retirement after a career (and a lifetime!) during which he feels he’s achieved nothing.

Courter and Sevilla are as unlikely a pair of heroes as you could meet.

The former fled the States to evade a likely lengthy jail sentence, and now has a heroin dependency, which, though he’s only in his 30s, long ago ruined his boxing career. These days, just to be able to support himself (and buy smack!), Courter rents himself out as a human punchbag to unscrupulous backstreet boxing promoters like the verminous Ortiz – who put him in the ring against eager up-and-comers, where he suffers the unbridled hatred of the crowd and takes some bone-crunching beatings. The one light in his life is Paloma, his girlfriend, a fearless activist with Mujeres Sin Voces, a self-help organisation seeking justice for the legions of murdered women, and whose drugs-dealing brother, Estéban, he occasionally helps by providing a white face by which to lure nervous American customers.

It is through this connection that we first meet the honest but drink-enfeebled cop, Sevilla, who is constantly leaning on Courter to get him to give up his and Estéban’s supplier. Courter resists, of course, and there isn’t much Sevilla can do about that, or even is motivated to do, if he’s honest – because his life too has been irreparably damaged by the plague of ‘feminicide’, which, among so many others, has claimed both his daughter and his granddaughter.

As such, neither Courter nor Sevilla, nor even Estéban lead happy and fulfilled lives, but things get a whole lot worse when Paloma, who on several occasions has stood up to the menacing gangland figures constantly circling Mujeres Sin Voces, also disappears. If this isn’t enough, as neither Courter nor Estéban have adequate alibis – Courter was on yet another drugs binge at the time! – they are taken into custody as suspects by the monstrously violent Captain ‘La Bestia’ Garcia, who, while he’s pretty incompetent when it comes to collaring gangsters and sex-murderers, likes nothing better than to brutalise confessions out of the little fish who drop his way.

Even Sevilla, who by now has developed a reasonably amicable relationship with Courter, can do nothing to help. When he turns to Adriana Quintero, the almost impossibly well-groomed prosecutor attached to the Special Task Force for the Investigation of Crimes Against Women, and pleads Courter’s innocence, he is greeted with utter indifference; Quintero’s real job, it seems, is to make it look as if Juárez is being served by the law.

Sevilla realises that only one route is open to him. Somehow or other, he must do the unfeasible, and bring the real perpetrators of the Juárez ‘feminicides’ to justice …

The first thing that struck me about The Dead Women of Juárez, Sam Hawken’s debut novel, is that it isn’t your typical crime-thriller. I’ve seen it described variously as ‘hard-boiled’, as ‘a border noir’, as ‘a classic murder-mystery’, and while there are aspects of all those in there – hard-drinking detective, Sevilla, and battered boxer, Courter, wouldn’t be out of place in any Chandler or Mickey Spillane – the overwhelming catastrophe that is actually occurring in Juárez basically takes centre-stage.

And that’s the main point. Because this relentless spate of unsolved murders is a real thing, and because the real city in which the novel takes place is every bit as dusty and down-at-heel as Sam Hawken describes it here, it would seem indelicate, if not downright trite, to classify this novel as anything resembling pulp fiction. It’s a rattling good story – there’s no question about that, and Hawken’s lean, mean prose keeps it bouncing along at pace. But the whole narrative aches with a deep-felt sadness, which can only stem from the real life horrors of that woe-begotten burg.

And it’s quite clear that Hawken wrote his book fully mindful of this issue.

His approach is observational rather than judgemental. Whether it be the extreme inequality of wealth on display here (some folk living in ‘cartons’, while super-powered businessmen like Rafa Madrigal, and his vile son, Sebastian, own ranches and private golf courses), the rash crowds of American kids who flock across the border to party and get high, or the armies of dealers, hookers and hustlers who cater to them, he simply describes things the way they are, rather than calling down fire and brimstone on it. Even the ongoing murder spree is brought to us subtly, Hawken not sitting us down to lecture us, but gradually drawing it to our attention via the clusters of wooden crosses we see standing on wasteland now and then, or the flyblown ‘missing’ posters adorning streetlights and telegraph poles.

This, he shows us – without really needing to say it – is the tragedy of modern Mexico.

Poverty and crime are the norm. Murder is so common that people are no longer shocked; they simply live their lives around it, getting on any way they can. Even Mexico’s crime-lords and their roaming gangs of gunmen are regarded as an everyday occupational hazard.

But while that’s the way of normality in Ciudad Juárez, for the rest of us it’s seismically terrifying. You find yourself shuddering more with each page turned, appalled that such injustice and exploitation could ever exist in the modern world. The desolation of all the main characters’ lives is palpable. It extends to the lesser characters too: the scores of bereaved parents and siblings protesting futilely on barren street-corners; the dead-eyed workers trudging in for yet another long shift in hot, dirty factories; those people who live in cartons.

In all these respects, The Dead Women of Juárez is an unforgettable read. It is dispiriting and distressing – just when you think one awful thing too many has happened, another, even worse thing comes along. The violence and cruelty is more visceral and in-your-face than almost any reader could be comfortable with. However, none of this means that there isn’t going to be a reckoning of sorts. It certainly doesn’t mean that Rafael Sevilla, finally galvanised to take a long-overdue revenge on the enemies of his town, won’t get his act together.

To say more on that would be a spoiler, but The Dead Women of Juárez isn’t just a warts-and-all study of modern-day despair; it’s a multi-layered, fast-moving piece of docu-fiction, superbly written and while not exactly entertaining, ultimately very, very satisfying. Okay, it may not be true to call this book a typical crime-thriller, but that certainly does not mean that it doesn’t reach a very thrilling conclusion.

Another one I highly recommend, though with the caveat that it’s more an existentialist nightmare than a murder mystery, and that even in that brutal guise, it pulls absolutely no punches. 

And now, as usual, I’m going to be bold enough to try and cast this one in advance of it ever coming to the movie or TV screen. I’m not sure whether it’s been optioned or not, but hey … this is only an exercise. Like anyone would listen to me, anyway. Here are my picks for the leads:

Detective Rafael Sevilla – Antonio Banderas
Kelly Courter – Wentworth Miller (older than in the book, but he doesn’t look it)
Ortiz – Sergi Lopez
Esteban – Pablo Cruz
Paloma – Angelique Boyer
Captain ‘La Bestia’ Garcia – Alberto Estrella
Adriana Quintero – Blanca Soto
Rafa Madrigal – Miguel Sandoval
Sebastian Madrigal – Gael Garcia Bernal

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