Mr. Grofield and the Artists


I just wanted to do an overview of the cover art for the first three Grofield novels published by MacMillan (and others). Because they’re so good? I wish. Grofield had terrible luck with cover art. It seems like they just didn’t know how to visually depict novels about an actor who supports himself through armed robbery, but isn’t working as an actor or a robber in the first three books he’s the protagonist of. In all fairness, I’m not sure I’d know how to depict that either, even if I could draw worth a damn.

The first MacMillan cover, seen above, is a head-scratcher–yes, the book is set in Mexico, and they play guitars there (and everywhere else on earth). And there’s a woman in it, and she does wear a bikini. Grofield is always interested in sex, so pretty women are pretty nearly always on these covers, but as we’ll see, there’s rarely anything terribly specific about the art–you could stick it on a thousand other mystery/suspense books, and it would work just as well–or poorly.


First American paperback reprint–not bad. This was the first Grofield I ever collected, because I liked the artwork. Grofield looks a bit more somber and square-jawed than I’d imagine him, and you kind of have the feeling that something tragic is going to occur–the redheaded girl dies maybe, and he’s haunted forever by his failure to save her.  Would you know from this cover that the book is a lighthearted romp, nobody important dies, and the girl is a blonde? Nope. Next slide, please.


Now somebody obviously took some trouble to draw this, and I don’t like to complain, but why didn’t he/she take the trouble to read the book, or at least skim it?  It may not be the artist’s fault–Grofield may have sometimes gotten leftover artwork originally intended for other books.  As one would hope was the case below–


Okay, seriously–Elly Fitzgerald is described as a blonde over and over in this book!  There are no other female characters of any consequence.   Why is her hair a jumble of black wires, and why does Grofield look like he’d rather be doing his taxes than making out with her?  Does anybody here know how to play this game?  Let’s try the European continent–they appreciate a nice blonde over there–

damsel_portugal_1 damsel_germany_1  damsel_sweden_1 damsel_italy_1

I just do not get it.  And this is nice cover art (lovely graphics on the first one, from Portugal), and some of it really seems geared towards the book–the last cover, from Italy, in particular.  And yet over and over–brunettes.   And there are no brunettes in The Damsel.  A mystery that shall remain forever unsolved.  As will the mystery of how, if that’s Grofield on the cover of the Swedish edition (with a brunette, obviously) looking like a black-haired cross between Michael Madsen and Rutger Hauer, anybody would ever want to work with him.  I think Parker would find him too creepy.  On to The Dame.


American and British first editions, and basically the British artist took his cues from the American cover, without slavishly imitating it.   It says a lot for the Grofield covers that these are two of the better ones, but they still don’t tell you a damn thing about the story or characters, and could easily be repurposed to many other unrelated books.


The continental European publishers usually did the best job with the Grofield artwork, but of course the artists would often not read English, and might not have been given a translation to read either (this is assuming book cover artists working in the crime genre always carefully studied the books they were illustrating, and I make no such assumption).  So here we have really nice looking artwork, a pleasure to the eye, that seems to have been drawn for entirely different books. 

The German cover in particular is great, but I think the artist just knew that the book was set in Puerto Rico and had guns in it, so here’s a guy shot dead in the jungle–must be in there somewhere, yah? Explains the other one as well–there must be a sexy girl, and since the book is set in Puerto Rican, she’d be Latina, so of course brunette and curvy–now I think on it, this is probably what happened with The Damsel covers making Elly a brunette–the artist just knows where the action of the book takes place, and gears the artwork to that. And this is what comes of artists not reading the books.


I really can’t decide which of these is worse.

Let’s try The Blackbird–this is the era of blaxploitation movies, so obviously we’re going to see a tough-looking black chick with a gun–


And here’s the same odd parallel between the completely different illustrations on the American and British first editions–scary black woman holding automatic rifle.  Both have full afros, even though Vivian Kamdela is described as having very close-cut hair.  And as being extremely beautiful, and if you want to know how I’m seeing her at present–


(Lupita Nyong’o looked absolutely sensational at the Oscars on Sunday.  Not that there’s ever going to be a movie version of The Blackbird, but it’s nice to have her to mentally replace those scowling afro’d women with, isn’t it?)


Countryman Publishing reprinted all the Grofields, often in more than one edition, and I’m sure Westlake was happy to have the royalty money, but their covers were invariably the worst.  The one on the left is depressingly literal, isn’t it?  A highly schematic black woman, and there’s the silhouette of a bird (black of course), as done by a five year old who flunked art class.   And I really don’t know what the other one is supposed to be–some kind of ice gremlin?  If they couldn’t afford good artwork, why did they keep commissioning new covers for the same book?  I really wish this publisher had just decided to emulate Gallimard’s Serie Noire imprint here–


I know they’re just being cheap, but dammit, that WORKS.


Okay, neither of these women look at all like the woman in the book, and do I care?  Not when they look this good, I don’t.  Of course, the German edition on the right is using a live model, and somehow one would like to know her name–was she in any movies I could rent?   I’m not going to mention all the various title translations, but this one I find rather amusing as a birder who has been to Germany–in Europe, blackbirds are grouped with the thrush family.   The German word for blackbird is Amsel.   But for whatever reason, they decided to give the German language edition the title Die Singdrossel, which means The Song Thrush–which is an entirely different species of thrush.  That is not black.  Your guess is as good as mine.

The edition on the left is Swedish–obviously.  Because of the nudity–and the (obviously male) artist’s touching assumption that all sexy women, regardless of skin color, have tan lines.  Not that I have any particular problem with tan lines.  Again, there is no attempt being made to illustrate anything specific from the plot–but wait–Italy has yet to be heard from!


Does this look like a beautiful dark-skinned black woman with short nappy hair?   No.  Does her wearing some kind of poncho in the snow (I guess it could be a blanket) make any sense?  No.  Does this illustrate a scene from the book?  Kind of yeah–where Grofield and Vivian are being buzzed by the plane.   They’re in a snowmobile, and they aren’t using pistols, but I think this one merits an ‘E’ for effort.   If only because Vivian isn’t buck naked in northern Canada in the wintertime.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

And the award for the most generic Grofield cover of all time (and quite possibly the most generic book cover of all time) goes to–


It’s almost masterful in its way.   Try to imagine any novel, short story collection, play, sex manual, that this could not serve as the cover for.   Probably wouldn’t work for a cookbook, but you could just draw a chef’s hat onto one of them.

The most recent reprints were from University of Chicago, and they aren’t too bad.  Or too good.  Or too easily distinguished from each other if you happen to be colorblind and don’t have your reading glasses on.


The Grofield covers are, with few exceptions, a vast assortment of sour lemons, but ironically enough, the very last book, which references sour lemons in the title, and was from a different publisher, didn’t do too badly in that department.   But I’ll save those for the review, still some time off.

Our next book has had an even greater variety of covers, and frankly most of them aren’t so hot either.   And it doesn’t matter a damn.  Because the rock is hot, and the people seeking it are so damn cool.  And funny as all hell.

(If you enjoyed looking at these highly inappropriate book covers, as I know I did, you can find all of them, and many more besides, at the Official Westlake Blog–this link will direct you to the Richard Stark wing of the cover gallery.)


Filed under Donald Westlake novels

8 responses to “Mr. Grofield and the Artists

  1. The U of Chicago Grofield covers are (mostly) better than their (mostly) awful Parker covers. They still seem to have a little trouble with the basic placement of shapes and objects, but they’re getting there. And, as noted elsewhere, my criticism of UofC can only go so far given the great service they’re performing simply by getting all these books back in print.

    • I wholly agree–it was a lucky day for us all when Levi Stahl happened to read a Parker novel. It is bemusing, though, that the one thing everybody who knows about Grofield knows about Grofield is that he’s an actor who commits armed robberies, and not ONE of these covers makes the slightest attempt to illustrate that.

      There are ways that could be gotten across visually–put him in motley, holding a machine gun. Show a bank robbery being conducted on a proscenium stage. Like that. Only of course he has yet to commit a single robbery in the course of the first three novels, except for the one he pulls with Parker at the start of The Blackbird. It’s a curious choice, to keep him so far from the two of the three things he most enjoys (I don’t think I need to tell you what the third thing is), and one Westlake seems to have finally repented of, or at least he decided enough was enough. He figured out how to do it–then he stopped doing it. To Westlake, a problem solved was often a problem abandoned. Restless intellect.

  2. Adi Kiescher

    They probably didn’t translate the German version into “Amsel”, because “Amsel” is often used in a pejorative and figurative way for “a stupid or silly and talkative girl”.

    • Ah, I see–one of those loaded bird words, like Loon, or Magpie, or Nightingale. But hard to see how Song Thrush gets any point across at all, since Vivian doesn’t sing–except maybe when she tells Grofield what the meeting is about.

      The point of the original title is that she’s a good-looking bird who happens to be black (personally, I think the title rather overemphasizes Vivian’s place in the narrative, but the Grofields were selling sex to a greater extent than most of Westlake’s non-sleaze work), so how would you get that across in German? Schwarzspecht? That’s the Black Woodpecker, which I got a quick glimpse of in a forest near Stuttgart. No, somehow, I don’t think Vivian would appreciate that. Nor would she enjoy being compared to a Carrion Crow. I guess Singdrossel serves well enough–it sounds pretty, and they are brown on top. With a pale breast that has dark spots on it. I’m being overly literal, aren’t I? Well, so was Westlake’s original title. Assuming the publisher didn’t foist that upon him.

      The foreign titles generally make little attempt to get the meaning of the original title in English across to their readers. Here’s a list of English translations of the foreign titles–

      The Damsel
      Italy: Mexican Carrera
      Germany: Girl Robbery in Mexico
      Portugal: A Young Girl in Danger
      Sweden: Cold Calculation

      ‘Carrera’ doesn’t translate very well, but basically the first title means “Mexico at full speed.” I think. The Portuguese title says basically the same thing as the English title, but uses more words to say it, I guess because there’s no one word that has the full connotation of ‘damsel (in distress, don’t you know) in Portuguese, though you’d think there would be.

      The Dame
      Germany: No Rum in Puerto Rico
      Sweden: She’ll Die Anyway

      The Swedish titles are terse, to say the least–you can see how they’d be into Richard Stark, but I suspect Parker was much more to their tastes. A great homegrown tradition of crime fiction over there, obviously. Pretty sure there’s a whole lot of rum in Puerto Rico, but I guess that’s the point? Grofield’s too busy dodging bad guys to do what a German tourist would be doing, ie drink rum and soak up the rays? I suspect he gets around to drinking at the end, but Westlake was more of a bourbon man.

      The Blackbird
      Germany: The Song Thrush
      Italy: Spy for Blackmail
      Sweden: No Choice

      The French just called it L’oiseu Noir, which means–like you didn’t already know–The Blackbird. And man, that’s a good title for a Gallimard Serie Noire.

  3. I’ll be defending these covers – with teeth and nails.
    These covers are not McGinnis’ or Bennett’s works. But I like’em. They represent the era, they are finished pieces, not like UoC series covers, they are one of a kind. I like their minimalism, their oddness, their simplicity. I’m not, unlike you Chris, one of those who want the cover match a story under the cover. I don’t care about matching, They could be completely different, anf if a cover on its own is good, then the hell with other factors.
    I own 4 editions of total 6 (mix of UK and US), and I am proud of owning them and not ashamed to show these covers to anyone.
    Reprints are ugly, because they lack an odd solidness, they are done not as a piece of art, but as ornament under the author’s name.
    UoC covers are ugly in their own fashion. They are too series-ish, too flashy, too mottled, too acid. Not distinctive at all.
    Grofield probably their a bit better covers. But these are not bad at all.

    • You like all of them? They’re not exactly of a piece. I like the European covers, but of course it would be stupid for me to collect editions I can’t read. Just depriving people who can read those languages of the pleasure of owning them.

      The first U.S. edition of The Damsel isn’t really that terrible–I just don’t find it terribly evocative of the book. The Signet reprint is probably the best of the bunch, and I’m just peeved they made Elly a redhead, and didn’t convey any of the humor. The first UK edition I just can’t defend. At all. I don’t see how that artwork could have been commissioned for that book. I think my theory that sometimes publishers stuck Grofield with some other book’s rejected artwork has some merit.

      There is a much-quoted remark, attributed to many (though perhaps originated by Martin Mull) that goes “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” I think it works just as well for the visual arts. Nobody can lucidly explain in words why one image appeals to him, and not another. All I can say is that it is possible to create cover art for a crime fiction novel (or any other kind of novel) that is aesthetically pleasing, sets the right mood, and illustrates an actual scene from the book.

      I don’t think all cover art has to do all these things, but to me, if the artwork does none of those things, it’s a waste of the publisher’s money, and therefore indirectly, my own–there’s no law says you need any cover art at all. Many great books have had none. I guess there is a certain pragmatic benefit in having some kind of unique graphic design, just to draw the reader’s eye in a book shop–but how many of us are even getting books in shops these days?

      To me, what McGinnis and Bennett did at their best and what Hard Case Crime does now is the ideal for crime fiction. I pretty much always think the paperbacks have better cover art. But as Nick Jones has amply demonstrated, there’s been some pretty amazing art for dust jackets as well.

      The most important thing is what’s inside the cover, but that’s 99% of what we talk about here anyway, so no harm in branching out now and again.

  4. I like all of US and UK covers, the exception maybe is the US cover of The Damsel. I didn’t hold European books in my hands, so I can’t say I like them or I don’t.
    And don’t forget covers for Westlake RH books. Are their covers better? Surely not. I like’em, too. It’s dancing about architecture, sure, and maybe the reason I like’em more than you do is because I was never into fine art, I never was in picture galleries, never attended fine art shows and so forth. Probably comparing to real pieces of art these covers are junk (I measure all books comparing them to Dostoevsky’s standards, and you can guess that with that measure 99% books are junk, including all Grofield books), I can’t help it that I love this junk.

    • Oh I think many of the Random House covers are great. Their cover for Killy, for example. Really captures something about the book, two guys in a hostile town at night. The British art for that book is also very evocative, though quite different.

      Sometimes Random House didn’t do so well (their cover for Killing Time, though suitably dark, is not as good as the British first edition), but never as badly as MacMillan did with Grofield. Often they didn’t even try to illustrate–which for me is preferable to a bad illustration.

      Imagine somebody did cover art for some cheap edition of The Brothers Karamazov, and made Grushenka into some slinky blonde? Usually they take more care with a masterpiece of world literature, but I could see that happening after Julie Christie made such a sensation as Lara in David Lean’s version of Dr. Zhivago. Artist didn’t bother to read the book, very long, his current girlfriend is blonde, who cares? I do. I don’t want the book to be telling me one thing, and the artwork another. If they can’t agree, scrap the artwork altogether.

      One writer I rate very highly is Herman Hesse–he got popular with the counterculture here in the 60’s (much to his surprise, he didn’t know he was writing drug novels), and these paperback editions of books like Narcissus and Goldmund, Steppenwolf, etc, came out from Bantam–great cover art–exciting, true to the book, usually emphasized the sex angle (maybe overemphasized, though Hesse certainly appreciated feminine charms in his esoteric way). That was one way to go with it–but my favorite Hesse paperback would be Siddhartha–the New Directions paperback, from the early 50’s–there’s just a photograph of a statue of The Buddha, against a black background. Many possible approaches. Covers like this helped reestablish Hesse in the English-speaking world–this isn’t some dry German philosophical tome, meandering on endlessly–this is about LIFE!!!

      Now at the other extreme, take a writer like Dan Marlowe, who I enjoy reading, but who strikes me as being a talent that never really developed, possibly because he started so late in life. I got one of his books recently–a fairly new reprint, from a small publishing house, and they actually did great cover art, perfect for the book. And they made a complete mess of the text–to the point where the book ends with what was originally a promotional blurb on the back cover of the first edition paperback!

      That’s why we do have to cut publishers a break–artwork, graphics–they cost money. Publishing can be a very marginal business, even for established houses. If you spend too much on presentation, you may end up blowing it on what really matters–the actual book. Still, when it comes to cover art, like the song says, if you’re gonna do it, do it RIGHT.

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