I’ve written a few pieces on the covers of paperback detective novels recently, because I know how to have a good time. I’ve considered how they reframe old novels in terms of new genres and eras, how they reinterpret the meanings of the texts inside them, and how they set up assumptions about what the readers will find interesting. One category I haven’t discussed yet is covers which seem contain major mistakes.
By this I don’t mean that I disagree with their interpretation of the novel, or that they put misrepresent what a reader will find inside. I mean covers which make factually inaccurate statements about the story. Giving examples will obviously involve spoilers, so here’s your warning not to read any further if you don’t want to know major plot details of Ngaio Marsh’s Dead Water or Sarah Caudwell’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered.
This is the cover of the first of Caudwell’s series about the inhabitants of the legal Chambers at 62 New Square. I like them very much – they’re witty and polished in a way which a lot of novelists attempt and few can pull off without becoming unbearably arch or just sounding as if they’re trying to write P.H. Wodehouse fanfic. They seem a splendid addition to the genre of legal novels which includes in its wide parameters writers such as Caro Fraser, John Mortimer and Cyril Hare. But the back cover is rather puzzling.
Unless I’ve drastically misunderstood the novel, this blurb simply isn’t true. It’s not the Inland Revenue that Larwood finds herself in trouble with after becoming implicated in a murder – as you’d expect, it’s the (Italian) police. She is in trouble with HMRC because she doesn’t understand her tax liabilities as a lawyer, and this starts a long time before the body is discovered. The dead man is not identified as her “art-loving boyfriend” with whom she had taken a trip, but as a young man she met on holiday and started a love affair with.
The question “could he be an employee of the establishment from which she has been trying to escape?” is equally odd. Even assuming “establishment” means “institution”, the question is never posed as a mystery in the novel, since after she starts lusting after him, he tells her he works for the Inland Revenue. She goes from desire to desire mixed with a (comically depicted) feeling of horror and betrayal, but she never wonders whether he might be working for HMRC and it comes as a surprise to her.
The blurb sounds less like a description of the novel, and more like a third-hand summary by someone who has heard someone quickly outline the story to them. I don’t mean to be derisive by suggesting that – it’s the solution that seems to make most sense to me. In my ignorance of publishing practice, I rather assume that blurbs are not necessarily written by people who have read the whole novel and then pondered how to sum it up best in a couple of hundred words. I expect they’re written (in some cases at least) by marketing experts, based on a summary of the novel from someone else.
Given that this edition is a reprint which came out ten years after Caudwell’s death, and thirty years after first publication, it seems likely that the blurbs were being written as a batch. I’d be very happy to be corrected by anyone who works in publishing, but I would guess that this blurb was written on the basis of a quick explanation of the plot, in which some of the order of things was misunderstood.
This must be a particular risk when summarising a novel like Caudwell’s, in which the story is related by a narrator, who tells the story of when he and some lawyer friends were trying to get a friend back from Italy, whilst receiving letters from her detailing the events of the last few days. Detective fiction almost always involves a story going forward (the narrative of the detection) which reveals a story going backwards (the narrative of the crime.) In the case of Thus Was Adonis Murdered, the time sequence is even more complex, and one can easily see how things got dislocated in an explanation!
The other cover is Dead Water, one of Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn mysteries.
I found this one fascinating too, largely because I have been taking notes on the representation of paganism and witchcraft in the mid-century detective novel. Marsh’s work is very different in this respect from either Agatha Christie or Margery Allingham, let alone Michael Innes or Gladys Mitchell. But, again, the back cover is the point of interest here:
Another spoiler warning. Because no-one kills Miss Emily Pride. She remains unmurdered through the novel. Doesn’t die by any means, accidental or intentional. Miss Pride receives some threatening letters, and I admit I (along with Alleyn) was expecting someone to kill her during a lot of the novel. Indeed, when the body was discovered I assumed it was Miss Cost, and – again, like the characters – I thought someone had murdered Miss Cost mistaking her for Miss Pride. But that was not the case.
Is this a very clever piece of blurbing? Does it enhance the tension of the novel, by misdirecting the reader so that even after the murder happens they make an incorrect assumption and expect another killing? Does it play (like the novel) on the sexist and ageist stereotype that one old lady is much like another, which Agatha Christie exploited at several points in her work? Or does it make the same mistake itself, and has someone simply misunderstand in haste which old dear gets murdered? I’d like to believe the former, but I rather suspect the latter…