#579: Cover Stars – Abigail Salvesen on Hag’s Nook (1930) and She Died a Lady (1943) by John Dickson Carr [Polygon Books 2019 editions]

Cover Stars Abi

Book cover art is, for me, a source of huge excitement. Be it for reasons of apt evocation of a bygone era — the British Library Crime Classics, say, or the reams of Dean Street Press reissues — or the beautiful, almost utilitarian simplicity of the much-coveted Green Penguin, there’s an ineffable element of skill in striking the right balance.

Let me remind you, after all, that The Langtail Press released a bunch of superb titles by classic GAD authors in the early 2000s, the covers of which have about them the same simplicity of the Green Penguin, but no-one ever got too excited about this:

Langtail covers

“Ah, man, I’ve been looking for that…title…?”

Done badly, a cover can put one off a book whose chief appeal is, after all, its contents; done well, the result of careful and intelligent judgement, a cover is often overlooked despite becoming inextricably linked with the identity of the book in question.  I don’t own multiple editions of various Golden Age novels because I wish to pore over the texts and compare the infelicities of various generations of proof-reader — I have them because they’re gorgeous objects, evoking a sense of excitement, and the cover used to sell the book is inevitably a huge part of that feeling.

In what I’m hoping will be the first of an occasional series, my aim here is not to convince you of my opinions on the matter, but to invite the artists and designers responsible for these covers to talk about how they come into being.  And with Polygon Books having put a great deal of care in their recently-released reprints of the John Dickson Carr novels Hag’s Nook (1930), The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941), and She Died a Lady (1943), Abigail Salvesen — designer of the covers for the first and last of those titles — has very kindly agreed to give us a glimpse behind the curtain.

And so, enough from me, and over to her…

~

I always enjoy the challenge of creating original illustrations for book covers, and even more those that require a style out of my comfort zone. When I received design briefs for our two newly acquired Dickson Carr titles, Hag’s Nook and She Died a Lady, which asked for a modern take on the British Library Classic, I was excited to explore something new. My own style tends towards the richly detailed, monochrome aesthetic of Renaissance etchings, and the bold lines and flat colours characteristic of 30s illustration are pretty alien to me, so I began, as I usually do, with a whole lot of research.

Your typical ‘Golden Age’ detective book depicts the hero, brooding in the foreground as something shady goes on behind them:

Abigail Salvesen 1

With the exception of children’s books, story characters are largely absent from contemporary book covers — we’re in the age of type-centric design, embossing, gold foil and repeating patterns. The emphasis now swings to fancy finishes and production quality than to original cover art. This approach relieves the designer of the pressure of having to visually represent characters, leaving that part up to the reader’s imagination. Whether or not to depict a character on a book cover is certainly an issue of contention for new writing, but for Dickson Carr’s classics I was inclined to go full retro and mirror the imagery of earlier editions which feature the central characters Gideon Fell and Henry Merrivale in full detail.

Abigail Salvesen 2

The difficult task of capturing the characters based on Dickson Carr’s descriptions had already been ticked off, so why not simply translate the existing visuals into a more contemporary style?

I usually begin my design process by making doodles, collages and notes on my tablet, and once something starts to emerge from that I’ll do a digital sketch in black and white, marking out areas of dark and light and leaving space for the text. My first composition for Hag’s Nook shows a pensive Gideon Fell in his study, staring intently up at the sinister tower, illuminated in the moonlight.  I love the exaggerated distinction between foreground and background in period illustration — see Roger Broders’ classic travel posters for prime examples of this — so I wanted to emulate this in the design [click on either set of images below for a larger version].

Abigail Salvesen 4

Abigail Salvesen 3

The next stage is to finalise the illustration to give the team a clearer idea of how the finished piece will look – and a chance to give their critiques at an early stage! For this I use a (lifesaving) software that automatically finds and smooths edges. Essentially it erases all the stray marks you don’t want, leaving a nice clean line around your work. The downside of this software is that, well, it’s too perfect. It runs calculations based on pixels to manipulate images, which tends to give everything you produce the same look. Great if you’re after total consistency. Not so great if you’re trying to reproduce the look of hand-printed 1900s lithographs with their unique inaccuracies and imperfections. So, I usually take the image produced by this software back to my tablet to work in small details by hand.

My illustration of Fell is based on those early Dickson Carr covers, and from David Grogan’s artwork on our recent edition of The Case of the Constant Suicides (Polygon, 2018). Initially I drew Fell silhouetted in front of the window to heighten the sense of mystery and foreboding, but the composition just didn’t work with the typographic layout of the series, which has the title at the top. A slight change to the point of view and the addition of some delicate, flowing curtains to bridge the top and bottom half helped bring everything together.

Choosing a colour palette is usually one of the last processes I do. For me, establishing contrast in lighting is the most important step in creating a visually interesting piece so I tend to start there. In terms of colour for Hag’s Nook, I wanted to contrast the warm, darkened interior of Fell’s study with the cold, sinister events of the outside world, keeping to a limited colour palette characteristic of early 20th century graphic art. Originally I went for a vintage brown and blue, inspired by the changing palette of sepia photographs over time as they fade from rich umber to ghostly blue (left-hand image, below). However, the general feeling about this version was that it looked too old and needed modernising. A quick Photoshopping and we settled on a lurid purple and green combination (right-hand image, below) which we felt complimented the story’s sense of mystery, crucially without crossing the line between subtly sinister and Halloween tack!

Abigail Salvesen 5

A final touch was the addition of texture to the cover. The two images below show the difference between the textured (left) and untextured (right) cover. While it looks subtle on-screen it makes a big difference to the appearance of the printed book. Without the texture my feeling is that the image looks too clean and flat, verging on cartoon-like. It looks cheap. The texture – a light grain overlaid on the image in Photoshop ­– gives the sense that this is hand-printed on aged paper, fitting for the illustration style. It’s a small touch but it finishes off the piece nicely [click on the image for a larger version].

Abigail Salvesen 6

The design process for She Died a Lady was less straightforward. My initial approach was much the same as for Hag’s Nook, sketching out a monochrome Henry Merrivale, supported by a crutch, pondering the mystery of Rita Wainwright and Barry Sullivan’s tragic demise across a stormy seascape. This design nearly went to print, but at the last minute someone suggested it looked too similar to the Fell series, and that this might be confusing to an audience (despite the difference being perfectly clear from the subtitle — what I’ve learned in this line of work is never to assume that people will actually read these things…) [click on the image for a larger version].

Abigail Salvesen 7

To distinguish one series from the other, we decided to lose the foreground character and focus instead on the perilous cliff-face from which the clandestine couple ostensibly fell.

The illustration is based on a collage of images of cliffs and waves. I’ve included the (very) rough version here to give an idea of how I build up compositions in Photoshop. One of the most difficult parts of cover design is learning to push through the ‘ugly duckling’ stage! [click on the image for a larger version]

Abigail Salvesen 8

The final image is based heavily on Golden age travel posters, particularly in terms of the colouring.  In classic 20th century British railway posters, and likewise in Broders’ posters of France’s Mediterranean coast, there is an eclectic and unexpected mix of colours that give the landscapes a wonderful, dreamlike look. I wanted to capture a similar feeling on the cover of She Died a Lady in a nod to the tragic, whimsical romance of the story. In the final illustration, the sun is setting on the couple, mid embrace, casting a final glimmer of orange and pink across the shadowy greens and blues of the cliff.

Abigail Salvesen 9

I hope I’ve done these stories justice in my first foray into this iconic style, and I very much look forward to tackling the next of Dickson Carr’s classics – watch this space!

~

My most sincere thanks to Polygon for taking a chance on these Carr titles, and to Abi for doing such a wonderful job of both designing the covers and talking through aspects of the process — and for teasing us with the fact that there may even be more to come!  To get an idea of what future delights any such covers may hold, or to simply check out her other idioms of design,  you can find more of Abi’s work here.

18 thoughts on “#579: Cover Stars – Abigail Salvesen on Hag’s Nook (1930) and She Died a Lady (1943) by John Dickson Carr [Polygon Books 2019 editions]

  1. Cover art is important – partially how I got back into reading GAD from being attracted by the look of the British Library Crime Classics.

    A very interesting look at the process, particularly the decision making process – although I prefer the first design for She Died a Lady which I had seen when it first popped up on Amazon.

    Excited to hear that more JDC is in the pipeline.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great idea for a new blog-series, JJ! If there’s one thing that deserves a renaissance of its own, it’s the long-lost art of cover illustrations. Because (as mentioned here above) cover art is important. A good example of doing it wrong is Endeavour Media.

    Endeavour Media puts out a lot different types of crime fiction, classics and contemporary, but they all have the same bleak, uniform cover style that makes their vintage reprints indistinguishable from their more modern offerings. So you need to know your stuff to find what you’re looking for in their catalog. Something that would not have been so bad had they used different styles of covers for their vintage mysteries, modern police procedurals and thrillers.

    Anyway, thanks to the both of you and good to hear more reprints are in the work.

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  3. Very interesting stuff — many thanks, Ms Salveson.

    My trouble with cover a/w (and I have the same quirk with animation) is that I very often like the roughs/visuals more than I do the finished product! I adore those two b/w visuals for Hag’s Nook and the one for She Died a Lady. I like the finished versions very much indeed, don’t get me wrong, but, if it came to a choice of which ones I’d hang on my wall, it’d be the b/w visuals.

    Interestingly (perhaps), when I was working on Dragonhenge with Bob Eggleton many a moon ago, someone (I think it was Bob’s wife Marianne) made a similar observation, so Bob took some of the illustrations in that book just to pencil-rough stage. To judge by the reviews, people really loved these looser, less “finished” pieces. I know I did!

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    • The purpose of the art comes into play there, though, right? Plenty of pictures I’d put on my wall would be terrible book covers, so the reverse must also apply. My favourite book covers of recent years would be, say, the elegant simplicity and canny period-evocation of the Inspector French reprints (with the image of French smoking his pipe on the right-hand side of the cover), but on one’s wall that would be…weird.

      And yeah, internal illustrations do tend to work better when a little rougher, I’d agree, but that’s another category of art yet again. Those old “colour plate” inserts in the like of older YA books are glorious era-pieces, but lack the charm of the line drawing from the likes of the Three Investigators and similar. And, for an illustrator, I’d imagine striking the right balance between it all is part of the real challenge.

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      • Yes, Jim. 🙂 I was merely saying that, given my druthers, it’s often the roughs that I’d like to hang on my wall. And, in fact, I do have several such hanging on my walls — animators’ roughs, too, which have a magic all of their own.

        One of my more memorable experiences was discovering, while working in the Disney archives in Burbank, a VHS (remember those?) of animated segments made using simply the animators’ pencils and the inbetweens. It was just GORGEOUS. I sat there with my mouth open and had to be more or less forced to get back to what I was supposed to be doing.

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  4. Fascinating! The challenge of modernizing the ‘vintage look’ is daunting. The covers must appeal to fans who have read the books, yet inspire the uninitiated to flip through the pages. I’m surprised choosing a color palette is one of her last processes. Perhaps, I’ll start with a black and white image this time around.

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  5. I’ve never really understood the appeal of a green Penguin. Give me an illustrated cover any day!

    This is a fascinating piece. I work heavily with designers in a very different field, and so I’m familiar with all of the stages a design can go through before production. Somehow it hadn’t dawned on me that there would be this many variations for book cover art. The progressions that the Hag’s Nook illustration went through are interesting to see – kind of like listening to the early demos for a song you love. It was also interesting to see the inspiration for the style choices.

    The final cover for She Died a Lady is an excellent choice, but I have to say that I gasped when I saw the variation with the narrator holding the lantern on the cliff. It feels like it captures an element of that story so well. I’m thankful for this post as otherwise I imagine it never would have seen the light of day.

    I got the impression that Abigail had actually read the novels, which is always something I’ve wondered about when looking at old vintage covers. Some of them capture the story so well, whereas in other cases, you wonder if the illustration was done independently of the novel, and then paired by the publisher. Or did someone give the illustrator a written concept of what they wanted for the cover?

    My own personal taste is for the more “detailed” illustration style. I’ve never been a big fan of the UI design shift from skeuomorphic to flat (which apparently means I’m old), although I can appreciate the clean look of a flat UI. Similarly, with book art, I’m a big fan of the paintings shown in the Tey, Sayers, and Christie examples above. As such, I’m most drawn to the second Hag’s Nook cover, with the man leaning against the wall.

    Thank goodness some publishers are putting effort into illustrated covers these days. There’s that old saying about not picking a book by its cover, but you appreciate what you’re reading that much more if it visually connects with you. In the case of She Died a Lady, modern readers will now have a haunting image that matches the haunting title.

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    • I think the BL reprints have gone a long way to inspiring publishers to put the effort into coming up with new, considered cover art for these old reprints. The success of that series no doubt resulted in a lot of publishers dredging their list of properties to see what they had in the same house, and it’s pleasing to see the quality of product improve in so many regards,

      Yes, the e-book market has also made people appreciate the tactile nature of a tree-book, but that would be the case across every genre. The BLCC series feels like the first time in a long time that a specific, recognisable style has been applied to a broad range of multi-author texts in the genre as a way of establishing a — *shudder* — brand identity. I think it’s that which make the Green Penguin so appealing, too; a huge range of authors, to who a generic design can be easily applied, and the identity of the manner and stripe of book is immediately obvious from a simple glance.

      If nothing else, look at the sheer number of GAD reprints that just so happen to look alarmingly like BL editions (there’s an independently-published paperback of Crofts’ The Ponson Case which looks so much like a BL book that you feel surely, surely there’s a lawsuit in it for someone…).

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  6. Fascinating stuff – channelling the British Library vibe without copying it directly, which should do well in bookshops.

    I think covers is somewhere that Dean Street Press have suffered a little in the past – the Bush and Punshon covers, basically identical apart from the title and colour scheme often have me diving back to my Kindle to see if I’ve got a certain title or not. They’ve made amends with more recent releases (Radfords, Dalton, Flynn etc) incorporating the original art where possible.

    I’d definitely be interested in hearing more on the subject. Thanks for this, JJ

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    • The Punshon covers were a little generic, but they captured a sense of the era perfectly. You look at them and immediately know what you’re getting, I feel, which is the mark of a good designer at work.

      And the Flynn reissues look gorgeous — full kudos to everyone involved there.

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      • Apart from finding some of the original images, I had nothing to do with the covers – the first I knew about using the original images was when DSP showed them to me. Ironically my favourite, The Creeping Jenny Mystery, uses an original image, as all we had was the US cover which didn’t work as the author clearly had just guessed at the content of the tale from the title… and guessed wrong.

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  7. Parroting everyone else, but what a stupendous post! (nice to have the opportunity to use the word stupendous, as it doesn’t get an airing that often)
    It is good though to have the chance to see the different stages of production, as well as celebrate the occasion when cover art work is done well. Though don’t get me wrong it is entertaining to look at covers from the 70s and 80s which make even the mildest of Christie novels look seedy.

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  8. Very interesting reading, and a subject I can relate to as I’ve too often been disappointed by the kind of generic Photoshopped variations on stock images that seem to predominate on many a modern cover. I do hope we are witnessing a broader resurgence of more creative, and colorful cover imagery.

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    • I think a tide has turned, and a lot more thought is going into this part of publishing now — we could be in a real golden age of book design, especially where reprints are concerned. And with Polygon, the BL, and others showing how a great cover can really inform the impact a book has, let’s hope a lot of them seel and the message continues to permeate.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Great stuff, a very interesting read. For me, covers are quite important (even though the contents are even more important…) as probably most have guessed from my discussion on your latest Enid Blyton post.

    Big thanks to Ms. Salvesen for taking the time to share.

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  10. Fascinating blog topic. You can’t judge a book by its cover, but the right cover can draw you into the book and enhance the reading experience. As a child, I marveled at the cover artwork on the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and Three Investigators books that then led to Agatha Christies and other GAD authors. For me, the right cover creates a sense of awe, suspense and curiosity that adds to the pleasure of reading.

    Like

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