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Mary Reed Does a Survey on Book Covers

Okay, total fan girl moment going on here. I have seriously loved the John, the Lord Chamberlain, series by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer for years. The only one I haven’t read is An Empire For Ravens, which just came out this month. I’ve even gotten the Beloved Spouse to read them and he doesn’t even like mysteries that much. He likes these, which are set in 6th Century Constantinople under Emperor Justinian. So when Mary Reed agreed to do a guest post on my humble blog, I squealed like an excited teenager. 

And there was more squealing to be done, as not only did Mary gather together the thoughts of several of her colleagues at Poisoned Pen Press, one of them just happens to be another of my total faves, Priscilla Royal (love the Medieval Mysteries). Not to mention some other really great authors. The theme is what makes a book cover pop, stand out, you know, make you want to buy it and the thoughts are fabulous. Alas, we don’t have the art for the covers (I didn’t have time to get all the permissions, sigh). And now, Mary Reed and friends.


Oscar Wilde claimed he could resist everything but temptation.

For authors, a constant conundrum is what makes a cover tempting enough to encourage a reader to pick the book up, glance over its back cover’s blurbs, maybe read a few pages, in short take those first golden steps leading to making the purchase?

There are numerous sources of advice of various kinds concerning covers online, but I took a different route. I polled several authors recently on covers they found particularly striking on the theory their responses would be useful to writers providing input on, or perhaps creating, their own covers. These are their replies and the reasons they liked the covers they nominated.


Title: Trust Me by Hank Phillipi Ryan, nominated by Mark de Castrique, author of Secret Undertaking (Buryin’ Barry series)

Description: Red bars on brown background, title and author in black, individual words printed in oblongs with torn edges.

Reason: An interesting cover. When the book is turned sideways the graphic design under the title is now legible as the word Liar.


Title: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, nominated by Michael Kahn, author of Played!

Description: Woman’s eyes and lips against dark blue sky above a carnival, title in yellow, author’s name in white.

Reason: One of my favorite books is The Great Gatsby—and though it has had as many covers as discarded pre-publication titles, my favorite cover is the original one.


Titles: Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy L. Sayers, nominated by Maggie Robinson, author of Nobody’s Sweetheart Now (Lady Adelaide Series)

Description: An invisible gentleman in evening wear with monocle in place on a red background, title and author in white.

Reason: The Lord Peter Wimsey series has recently gotten a makeover; each book cover features a monocle and a gentleman’s suit, which is very striking. Probably my favorite is The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, not only for the ironic title but the simplicity of the tuxedo, plus the bright red, which sets the stage beautifully. Long live classy menswear!


Title: Y Is For Yesterday by Sue Grafton, nominated by Annie Hogsett, author of Murder To The Metal (Somebody’s Bound to Wind Up Dead series)

Description: Prominent bright yellow Y on a greenish black background, author’s name in white.

Reason: It is the ultimate expression of an author’s brand. It’s the one shot that’s worth thousands and thousands of words. There are stadiums full of readers still reading away inside that cover. A promise that’s been fulfilled again and again. “This is Kinsey. This is Henry. This is peanut butter and pickle sandwiches. This is still Sue.”


Title: Devil’s Wolf by Paul Doherty, nominated by Priscilla Royal, author of Wild Justice (Medieval Mysteries series)

Description: A simple but stylised red drawing of a rampant wolf on a black background. Title in yellow and author’s name in white.

Reason: It’s hard to pick covers these days because designing has gone down hill dramatically, but I would throw this one in for a few reasons. It is simple (therefore more dramatic than the usual all-too-busy things), ominous so suggests mystery, and has just enough of a hint of the medieval, which it is.


Title: White Teeth by Zadie Smith, nominated by Wendall Thomas, authorof Lost Luggage (Cyd Redondo series)

Description: Title and author in white lettering in a vertical configuration on a red, yellow, and turquoise background.

Reason: I always loved the paperback cover of Zadie Smith’s first book, White Teeth. I love the white letters against the strong turquoise and red and the tiny details which make you look more closely. It sang to me from the shelf and it has pride of place on my desk for inspiration.


Title: Bound By Mystery (anthology) edited by Diane D. DiBiase, nominated by David Wagner, author of the Rick Montoya Italian Mystery series.

Description: Features cut-out portions. Grey background with figure composed of horizontal green strips, title in black in spaces between them, editor in black below figure’s feet.

Reason: There is something about holes in a cover that fascinates people, probably because it is a surprise, but also it reveals the “inside” of the book and encourages them to open it, at least to the first page. In this case we have what is probably a dead body, tied up and green, bound by the gray of the cover. It catches the eye, and whenever I’ve shown it to someone they are impressed and want to touch it. We don’t get much tactile sense in books, but this coverhas it.


Title: The Holiday Murders by Robert Gott, nominated by Sulari Gentill, author of Gentlemen Formerly Dressed (Rowland Sinclair series)

Description: Black title and author superimposed on a beige figure silhouetted against a red background.

Reason: I’m looking at Australian covers, which often differ at least slightly from the US version. One of the cleverest covers I’ve ever seen clads The Holiday Murders. The novel is set in Melbourne in the ’40s, and the map within the torso on the cover is a 1940s map of Melbourne with the sites of the murders marked with a red X. It’s brilliant in its simplicity, very eye-catching, and like no other cover I’ve seen.


Title: The Face of Battle by John Keegan, nominated by J. M. Hayes, author of The Spirit and the Skull

Description: Orange border on black background with gold title on upper two-thirds and gold author’s name at bottom. Between, a human skull wearing chain mail faces the spine.

Reason: The armored skull is appropriate because Keegan describes the history of warfare by examining battles as seen through the eyes of common soldiers. Keegan shares, often in their own words, experiences at Agincourt (1415), Waterloo (1815), and The Somme (1916), where combatants sought to avoid the fate of the warrior on the cover.


Mary, here. As for my thoughts on the matter? I quizzed myself and confess my choice for a striking cover is any in the British Classic Crime series issued by the British Library. Their colourful and somewhat stylised covers appeal to me a great deal because they remind me of vintage British Railway posters for various holiday destinations. Then too, as Balzac observed, simplicity never fails to charm, and their presentation of simply rendered settings link these novels together visually, another contributing factor to striking covers well worth studying at another time.

Thank you so much, Mary. Can’t wait to read An Empire for Ravens. You can find it here at or on Amazon.


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