#261: Judging a Book – Rejected Cover Art for Murder on the Way! (1935) and I’ll Grind Their Bones (1936) by Theodore Roscoe

Roscoe Covers

As you may be aware, it was recently my most honoured pleasure to be involved with Bold Venture Press in the editing and republication of two novels by Theodore Roscoe.  It’s not something I had any experience of before — and, to be fair, Rich and Audrey were so good about so many aspects that I don’t really have any transferable experience now — but I thought I’d offer a glimpse behind the curtain today and share with you some suggested covers for both books that we didn’t end up using.

Suffice to say, I had no hand in the creation of these — lacking as I do the talent to do whatever basic thing would prove me capable of such (I don’t even know where to start denigrating myself, that’s how clueless I am…) — but was invited to put my vote in come the final selection.

So, first we have:

MotW1

These first two, you may be aware, use the Gustav Doré print used for the title page, end papers, and blank pages between chapters (I gotta be honest, these otherwise-blank pages being filled with details from this gave me a real kick — it looks awesome).  This was informed by the late description of a scene as “Doré gone mad in black and white,” with the following beautiful nightmare etched perfectly on the imagination:

Black for the swooped-up shadows, the angled corners, the gallery’s overhang, the cloudy night of the ceiling.  Black for the scribbled heads massed from wall to wall, purple-black for frizzy wigs, shoeshine black for bald spots, blue-black and lavender in cheekbones, upflung fists, corded muscles.  Wet tar for the statue of Tousellines posed near the library door.  Blackest of all, the figure silhouetted against the charcoal smudge of the opened library, the figure that stood with arms wide and cape-wings spread bat-fashion, overshadowing the scene.

White for the candles that were stars upheld in burnt-cork hands, the out shooting pin-lines of light spattering through the dark, the eggs that were Negroid eyes, the ivory grins of piano-key teeth.  Blue-white for the sheen on gun-barrel and brandished machete; ash-white for the bandaged head of Lieutenant Narcisse lolling brokenly between two ebony Nubians who towered in the foreground.  White, outstretched shadows for the sheet-wound row regimented on the library threshold; and whitest of all for the torso of that black-winged creature in that doorway, the face a plaster death mask, the hands talons of bone at the tip of each wing, the body to the belt, exposed, like a skinny picked butcher-shop chicken, ribs and wishbone visible as shadows in an X-ray.

It’s a wonderful description, and the image fits it perfectly, but as an advert for the book it brings to my mind rather too much Biblical grandeur and existential horror — at heart the novel is much more a pell-mell dash through a tontine gone wrong with insanity clawing at its heels, and that background of the grotesque is important but shouldn’t (and doesn’t) overwhelm the central mystery.  This seems to promise a sort of end-of-times horror novel, and it didn’t quite seem worth that late payoff described above to put the typical GAD reader — the sort of person, lest we forget, who would love this — off at the first hurdle.

Secondly:

MotW2

If the zombie element were more pronounced — if, in fact, this was a straight-up shambling hordes of flesh-eating zombies gradually whittling our plucky heroes down one-by-one sort of story — I think this would have been perfect.  But — and let me be very clear about this, in case you see “zombies” mentioned and think this is what the book is about — it couldn’t be less that type of a novel.  Yes, there are zombies, but they’re used in a superstitious way; the idea of a zombie here is the early concept of a living soul trapped in a dead body, with that being nightmare enough divested of all longpig tendencies.  Indeed, the word is italicised throughout, in recognition of it as a foreign term, and this really helps in keeping straight in your mind precisely what type of zombie we’re talking about here.

So, well, I voted this one down because the sense of apocalyptic desolation felt too strong along these lines; tonally this is further from the book than the covers above, too, and there was a greater sense of wholesale annihilation than the book delivers — we’re working on a much smaller scale in this particular tale.  Remember this image, as we’ve not seen the last of it.

Finally for Murder on the Way!, we have:

MotW3

Which is not a million miles from the cover we ended up choosing, but again still felt to me like a (more modern, it must be said) zombie thriller cover.  I personally lobbied for the final cover partly on account of the house — a lot of the narrative is set in and around a grand old house on Haiti — and if this had the house on it I’m not sure which I would have gone for.  The threat here feels more nebulous, which I really like, but I also think the busy-ness of the final cover works for it; I also love how in both of them a tree is superimposed over a body or a face to give a sense of veins, and the blocking of the bottom half to contain the title and author name looks to my eye far more distinct and impactful.

Okay, onto I’ll Grind Their Bones…

IGTB1

I love this cover.  I love it.  It is haunting and so very powerful — there’s something about the variety of poses and the juxtaposition of the contrasting colours that really speaks to me — and an all-told wonderful piece of art.  However, heavy of heart, I have to confess that it does not reflect the book.  if the covers above for MotW felt rather too grand in their scope, this one almost feels too narrow: the level of destruction threatened herein is global — Europe is being frogmarched into war, and the world might just spiral in after it — and this feels like a three-murder story (possibly that’s my literal mind at work…).  In an alternative universe this would have been a pretty darn good cover for MotW, actually, but it wasn’t quite right for the between the wars international chase/thriller feel of Bones.

And so, onwards:

IGTB2

The ‘War Declared’ background — fun fact, the original title under which this story was serialised in Argosy magazine — was of course retained for the final cover, and I think it’s a great piece of scene- and era-setting.  The ‘burning bodies’ foreground felt like a better fit here than the rejected MotW cover above, the waste being laid on a far grander scale and so in better keeping with what you’re getting here.

At the same time, the war is very much in the background — it’s a huge Macguffin, and in no way something Roscoe shies away from confronting, but the story is more concerned with John Keats and his various freefalls into the incomprehensible insanity of impossible occurrences while the war rages around him.  A couple of extended vignettes do look directly at the action of and fallout from the combat, but this feels almost Dirty Dozen-ish, or at least sometime akin to Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948), and as such I thought a little off the mark.  It is my understanding, however (I’m yet to actually hold a finished copy of the book in my hands) that this image will be used in the book in another manner.  Yes, you can probably guess what that is, and it works bloody perfectly.

~

There were others, but this has been self-indulgent enough and so I’ll bring it to a close.  Hopefully you’ll agree that we made the best choice given the alternatives on show, but, really, you can’t judge until you’ve read the books…I mean, that seems the most sensible course to me 🙂

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7 thoughts on “#261: Judging a Book – Rejected Cover Art for Murder on the Way! (1935) and I’ll Grind Their Bones (1936) by Theodore Roscoe

  1. Great post JJ (though one expects no less from you). Enjoyed seeing behind the scenes. Its interesting how a different colour choice or the inclusion of one particular image makes all the difference in a cover. I’ve bought a copy of I’ll Grind Their Bones so hopefully I will get that soon. Also I am only a few books away from reading the wonderful locked room stories collection you put together last year (apologies for the delay – but I am terrible at remembering I have books when they are on my computer rather than a physical copy).

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    • Oh, hush, you’re making me embarrassed. I’ve always been so interested in the design of book covers, but never had this opportunity to actually influence one (or, indeed, two!), so I thought people might find it interesting; so much background stuff has to be done to get a book out there, which I know is obvious and not a useful insight, but being reminded of it sometimes helps remind me just how much effort goes into this kind of thing.

      I hope you enjoy IGTB, it’s such an enjoyable crazy ride. And, seriously, there’s no need to apologise for not getting to Ye Olde Book of Locked Room Conundrums (to give it its full title) — it was mainly an exercise in seeing what could be done; that anyone has read it is a distinct bonus!

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    • Thanks, Martin; I’ve been fortunate to get involved in this at a time when interest in this sort of thing is running quite high — I’m hoping some residual interest may spill over into Roscoe and he’ll get some measure of the audience he deserves. He was a wonderful writer, and these books exemplify just how many exceptional ‘forgotten’ books there must be from this period. It’s a very exciting prospect…!

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  2. I think the best covers were chosen in the end. The first ideas for Murder on the Way are certainly eye-catching but, yes, probably too suggestive of out and out horror.
    My only real objection to cover art at the moment is the reliance on stock photos, particularly thrillers which use solitary figures in black and white, usually in the middle distance, slightly blurred or fuzzed and striding up, down or across some vague cityscape – it’s trite, lazy and evocative of nothing so much as a feeling that the book will be a clone of the scores of other books with similar covers and (I imagine) similar plots. Yuk!
    I know they’re going to cost more but I do miss painted covers.

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    • See, I read so much old stuff, so many second-hand editions of now-OOP books, that I honestly hadn’t noticed a change in cover trends. The closest I get to anything recent is the Locked Room international Covers (which never disappoint) and the Ramble House Reissues (which, while often bonkers, are always entertaining and very well put together).

      But, I agree with you all the same that there must have been a move away from this kind of thing because, well, for one look at how successful the branding of the British Library Crime Classics is: those old railway posters, and the increasing number of commissioned new covers, strike a very notable aspect on the shelves, and have been snapped up by other publishers (*cough*KelRichards*cough*) who clearly wish to be associated with it.

      Hey, maybe this rise in popularity will get the relevant people thinking along these lines again, and we’ll get a return to good old-style covers. One can only hope!

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  3. I really love the rejected cover art using the Gustav Doré print, but hate the ones that were considered for I’ll Grind Their Bones. So I have to agree with Colin that, in the end, the best covers were chosen for this set of books. And still looking forward to getting my hands on the second one.

    Ah, yes, Kel Richards’ publisher. They were rather cheeky when commissioning the cover art for his books, weren’t they?

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