Fiona Hardy on Crime Book Covers

Crime-lover and blogger Fiona Hardy considers the book design tropes of crime fiction titles, and whether there are benefits to having oft-repeated motifs.


Let’s play a game. We’ll call it Crime Cover Bingo. If you have a crime book on your shelves that has one of the following on the cover: snow, trees, people in shadow, long empty roads, a fence, or a building at night, then shout BINGO — even if you’re on a train right now. I’ll hear about it on Twitter from your amused fellow passengers later.

It’s hard to dodge these design elements, especially when they end up on some of the best literature out there. For a title that can afford my candour, let’s consider The Cuckoo’s Calling — it flew (pun not originally intended) under my radar upon release under the name Robert Galbraith, and when it was revealed as written by J.K. Rowling I picked it up and sighed - a person in shadow on a road next to a fence and a building at night. The London street light makes it looks like a period drama, and it’s not. It’s actually very modern and extremely good.

But because of this, I think that crime readers may have an advantage - in that I can’t imagine any of them staring at the latest tree-lined-road crime thriller and getting excited by the cover. They don’t judge books by their covers, a notion we do not always adhere to. Crime remains popular through word of mouth, through engaging writing and the ultimate in high stakes: lawbreaking, be it murder, assault, kidnapping, or any of the multitudes of things society frowns upon.

Once all crime books had pulpy covers that told you everything about the main characters, now they have moody covers that tell you that the story is definitely set in a place that has roads. Some break out of the box, like Angela Savage’s bright-red The Dying Beach, or Kerry Greenwood, whose Phryne Fisher books are always beautifully illustrated. Just take a look at the latest title in the series - Murder and Mendelssohn.

Maybe the trend will end and steer elsewhere and let’s hope it’s not towards headless bodies, or police officers behind desks banging their heads on paperwork. I understand that there needs to be a sense of menace, and that shadows can be a metaphor for hidden truths.

(I suspect I’m a bit dense on the metaphors. I recently complained to someone that the new Val McDermid, Cross and Burn, didn’t even have a burning bridge in it, and then realised when saying it aloud that perhaps I was missing the point and that in fact it was one of the more appropriately-covered books of the season.)

For now, we’ll have to remember that buried under that snowy cover could be one of the most amazing books you’ll read. You just have to look for it…


This month, crime readers who join the Australian Crime Writers Association — for free! — have the opportunity to win a bundle of amazing literary prizes. Check out their website for details!

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The Cuckoo's Calling

The Cuckoo’s Calling

Robert Galbraith

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