Whilst rummaging around the primary texts for my current research project (a study of the novels of Agatha Christie), I decided to move some duplicate copies to my office. The more definite result was this shelf…
The less definite result was lots of pondering the very different covers which similar or identical novels showed off. The even less definite result was me not writing the next paragraph of my historiography of mid-century detective fiction by women, but this pondering was at least tangentially related to that.
Covers are both part of book history and reception history, of course. They give a sense of how publishers were framing and presenting a particular text to potential readers. They put a frame around as an yet unread book, suggesting what a reader might find exciting or alluring about it, and linking it to other books, or other cultural reference points. They are, in a sense, literary criticism. They are certainly “readings” of the book, if readings that are attempting to persuade us to read it, rather than have new insights about it.
They also give us a retrospective sense of how a particular era interpreted the book. This is especially the case for editions that came out much later than the book’s original publication. We can see publishers trying to fit the novel into the evolving profile of the genre. In the 1970s, for example, Agatha Christie novels were often repackaged which covers which suggested a higher sex and occultism quotient than the books contained, to capitalise on what was popular at the time. (I’ll dig a couple of those out for future posts.)
This is most obvious when the image seems incongruous to someone who ahs read the text. (Spoiler warning for The Nine Tailors). For example, this 1950s edition of Dorothy Sayers’ novel:
Because what, if I may be permitted to enquire, is going on here? That is clearly Peter Wimey, though we could bandy arguments about whether it represents him accurately. Lord Peter appears to have developed a bit of a gimlet eye and a matinee-idol chin, and the hair seems to have turned from tow-coloured and strawy to a rather glowing blond. The emphasis on the reticent and unemphatic in some of Sayers’ descriptions of her hero seems to have been downplayed in favour of the virile and dramatic. That is, of course, a possible and even reasonable reading of the text. Wimsey is scholarly and introverted, but he is also dashing and impressive at times. This cover chooses to pick out one aspect and dramatize it.
And there are clearly bells in the picture, which is fair given the prominence of them in the novel. They’re even bonging away in a dramatic or perhaps Gothic manner, which is a pretty neat piece of design. The reader may remember this image, and find it fulfilled in the lyrical rhapsody of the ringing of Kent Treble Bob Majors on New Year’s Day in the early stages of the book:
Then, from the faint, sweet tubular chimes of the clock overhead, the four quarters and the twelve strokes of midnight. The ringers grasped their ropes. ‘Go!’ The bells gave tongue: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes. Tin tan din dan bim bam bom bo – tan tin din dan bam bim bo bom – tin tan dan din bim bam bom bo – tan tin dan din bam bim bo bom – tan dan tin bam din bo bim bom – every bell in her place striking tuneably, hunting up, hunting down, dodging, snapping, laying her blows behind, making her thirds and fourths, working down to lead the dance again. Out over the flat, white wastes of fen, over the spear-straight, steel-dark dykes and the wind-bent, groaning poplar trees, bursting from the snow-choked louvres of the belfry, whirled away southward and westward in gusty blasts of clamour to the sleeping counties went the music of the bells – little Gaude, silver Sabaoth, strong John and Jericho, glad Jubilee, sweet Dimity and old Batty Thomas, with great Tailor Paul bawling and striding like a giant in the midst of them. Up and down went the shadows of the ringers upon the walls, up and down went the scarlet sallies flickering roofwards and floorwards, and up and down, hunting in their courses, went the bells of Fenchurch St Paul.
In which case they may think that this is the clamour to which the cover image refers. When in fact the artist has put the “murder weapon” on the cover, as the reader may realise in retrospect, having discovered that it was the bells which killed the mutilated corpse found in the churchyard of Fenchurch St Paul.
But who is the female figure intended to be? It can hardly be Hilary from the big house, or the French wife, or the maidservant who inadvertently let slip the hiding place of the jewels. The novel does stress the wind which sweeps across the fens of East Anglia, especially in the flower-arranging scene in the church, but I don’t recall it ever causing any of the female characters to clutch their thighs in order to stop their dress blowing up. I’m being facetious, of course, but to make a larger point. Anyone buying this novel under the impression that it contained rugged-jawed heroes and women out in storms in off-the-shoulder red dresses would surely be disappointed when they read The Nine Tailors.
If you ask me, this cover is responding to the major shift in attitudes to crime fiction which happened in the 1950s. Epitomised in Raymond Chandler’s essay “The Gentle Art of Murder”, with its sneers at “old lady” detective fiction and its emphasis on the lone hero walking though danger, it declared that a new era of crime writing had begun. Away with detective heroes with tight patent-leather shoes and funny accents, or with public-school manners and PTSD from the trenches – and away with them especially if they were written about by women. In with tough guys and dames in red dresses.
I think that’s what we’re looking at here: it’s the publishers living in the “new era” declared by Chandler, readjusting their framing of Peter Wimsey to suit what a reader expects from a crime story. In this cover, we can see two eras of the crime novel talking to each other.