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–
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.)