Monday, September 26, 2011

Monday Covers - Perry Mason and The Case of the Cozy Thrillers

I always find it interesting to look at mystery covers from the Golden Age of mystery. Nowadays, cozies have very different covers from thrillers and hard-boiled mystery -- and the books are very different too.

But back in the day, a mystery was a mystery. And I'm always surprised when I look at older covers and see how much more, well, thrillerish they used to be.

The other day I happened across some Perry Mason covers from the 1960's. These are some of the ugliest covers I've ever seen, but that's the sixties, you know? What interests me is that, just as with modern thrillers, the typography dominates. Who cares what's on the cover as long as you know it's a Perry Mason novel?

The striking difference between these and a modern best seller is the fact that the author name is tiny. The title is mid-sized. The main character name is huge. Of course, this is reasonable, after all by 1965, Perry Mason was not only a popular book series, but had been a big radio show and TV show. (Trivia: When CBS first wanted to put Perry Mason on TV, they wanted to make it a soap opera. Gardner wouldn't allow it, so they created a thinly veiled rip off, The Edge of Night, a very popular show which ran for 30 years.)

While the dominant type reminds me of a modern thriller, though, the images don't (they don't remind me of anything much current). And I can't say these are representative of much of anything. So I went hunting around a little further. Here are a couple of other Earl Stanley Gardner covers from just a tad earlier, 1958 and 1962.

The one of the left looks like modern Chicklit; on the right, it looks glitzier and more hard-boiled (which I think the A.A. Fair brand was trying to do -- although I haven't read the Bertha Cool books myself.) And while the first two are ugly as sin, both of these are actually rather attractive covers. Sure the woman from The Count of 9 looks very sixties in her make up and foundation garments, but otherwise there is a neat modern look to both of them. The only problem for a modern book is that The Case of the Terrified Typist doesn't look like a mystery cover. And I don't know that it did then either.

A well-established series can do what it wants -- the series IS the genre.

I decided to go looking for other authors, maybe looking for something a little more Golden Age. My own memories of these books, when I first read them as a child, were mostly of used hardbacks with no dust cover at all.

But I have vague memories of more thrilling covers, so I went searching wider, and look at these covers I found of Christie, Sayers and Queen books:

While there are aspects of these covers which are common with the modern cozy mystery, these look a lot more thrilling. They are suspense covers. They're for books you read on a dark and stormy night. They're... dangerous.

These days, cozies are seen as a separate genre from suspense. They have a reputation for being very safe (even when they're not). But once they were dangerous; the point of a cozy was not to stay in the light, but to look in the shadows and see that Evil lurks even in the sunniest of locations.

I don't think it's really a change in content. And certainly the writers and readers are still looking for the danger that lurks in the shadows. It's a marketing thing. Somebody -- someone who didn't even like cozy mysteries, I swear -- decided that the key hook to the whole genre was clean bright safety.

I understand it, really. Suspense and thrillers have moved into horrific territory these days. And I understand why the audience might want to be assured that the book is not going to be grueling and horrifying. But at the same time, frankly, you don't need to package something as G-rated just to assure me it's not R-rated.

I write silly, frivolous mysteries, but I really would like it if I knew people looked forward to reading them on a dark and stormy night. To me, that's what "cozy" means -- the night is dark, the house is creaking and the wind howling, and you're cozied up under blanket with a good book, a cat and a cup of cocoa.

Tomorrow, I'll talk about short fiction and recommend some authors and a few specific stories.

See you in the funny papers.

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