Hard-Boiled Detectives: Spillane and McBain, with a woman in jeopardy or as femme fatale. McBain as Hunter broke into the market with Blackboard Jungle, about the seedy side of high school. The John D. MacDonald cover depicts his work before he found his famous series character Travis McGee.
More hard-boiled men in exotic adventures: Louis L’Amour and Lester Dent.
Tone is as important as idea. Here are three well-known, highly regarded mystery writers with early covers of their books: Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, and Erle Stanley Gardner (of the Perry Mason series).
The first Cadfael book. On the far left, the first printing, emphasizing the spookiness of what should be a mystery novel. 1980’s sole monk appears designed for the religious reader. The far right is the 2011 cover, playing on the medieval monk and murder, but it’s not attractive. The 1994 edition started the break-out of Ellis Peters’ Cadfael series, coinciding with the first episodes in the TV series. One wonders if the TV marketers gave guidance to the book industry.
The above covers for Tony Hillerman’s first book depict the same problem that the Cadfael series faced. On the far left is the 1970 first edition: is this a mystery? Is it merely a book about Native Americans? The 1978 and 1980s (the exact date for the 1980s cover is not known) covers mix desert southwest (locale) with one of the other elements ~ 1978 adds the Navajo mythology but not mystery. 1980s adds danger (the skull), but not the Navajo. The 1990 cover mixes all three: desert SW, a bit of danger, and Navajo mythology. The far right cover is the 2019 edition, closer to the original with a big of danger mixed in. But if you don’t know it’s a mystery in the desert SW, you’re going to be surprised.
These next covers are for the first Hillerman book that I purchased, A Thief of Time. I bought the book on the far right along the Ellis Peter’s Morbid Taste (stained glass cover) and the first Elizabeth Peters all on that visit in 1995. I was lucky to pick up all three at the local chain store in the mall. On the far left is the 1988 cover, archaeology in the desert SW–no mystery but Kokopelli is Native American mythology. The middle cover is from 1989, mystery but very little connection to the desert SW (yes, we could count the border–but I don’t). The third cover from 1990 echoes the first one and coincides with the reprinting of his backlist. Notice the addition of skulls in front of the Mesa Verde-style pueblos. The Winner by hitting all three elements.
The marketers had difficulty with the Amelia Peabody series. The first book, far left, failed completely. The second book emphasized romance more than mystery. The heroine looks weak-willed and desperate for the man, which is not Amelia’s character, at all. While she loves the archaeologist, she stood strong against him and with him. We do have the Sphinx, though, rather than palm trees that could be mistaken for any American tropical area.
The third book is the one that was my own introduction to Amelia Peabody. I’m in Egypt with a pith helmet. Nothing about the title says mystery, nor does the slithering crocodile—although it does say danger. The cover does tell me that this is “An Amelia Peabody Mystery”, which announces a series. The graphic image is just a little off reality and certainly not like the preceding romantic feel of the previous cover.
The far right cover is from 2006 and is a British printing. We have Amelia on her knees in the sand, pyramids in the background, working on something while her friend paints. The crocodile on the Nile River grounds the cover image. It’s appropriately fanciful but a little naif which Amelia certainly is not.