Death Paints a Picture: The Feline Edition

Today I am posting the first, in what I hope will be a once a month blog post series. In a nutshell the theme of these posts will be to focus on the cover art of mystery fiction, which being me will be predominately vintage. Each post will be centred on a specific image, so in the case of my inaugural post the covers looked at will all feature a cat in some way.

I don’t have a rigid list of themes lined up for these posts, so if you have any suggestions as to what theme I should look at next, please share them in the comments below. If I get enough I may even do a poll so everyone can vote on the next theme. I have no set structure for these posts currently, nor do they intend to be exhaustive, but I hope to share some thoughts I have on the covers I have come across.

I don’t think anyone would be surprised to learn that there are A LOT of mystery novel covers featuring cats, nor that there is a frequent use of black cats and Siamese cats. I wonder if one of the reasons why these two types of cats are often utilised in such artwork is because between them, they encapsulate many of the tones and ideas artists are wishing to convey. Superstitions surrounding cats have been around for centuries, so it was quite natural for such animals to become embroiled in gothic, supernatural and crime fiction. Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’ (1843) is a good example which manages to merge all three of these together.

Consequently, as I will explore later in this post, cats are a quick way of adding a sinister tone to your cover. Moreover, their hunting abilities contribute to this feeling, and mystery writers have gone on to overlap the hunting qualities of cats with their fictional killer’s exploits. A good example of this can be in Ellery Queen’s Cat of Many Tails (1949), in which a killer is nicknamed the cat.

However, the capabilities of cats are not always treated so ominously and therefore some covers strive to use feline antics to suggest humour.

Whilst Scales of Justice (1955) and The Ginger Cat Mystery (1935) are novels which feature cats, whose actions directly impact the plot and the murder investigations, there are other mysteries in which the in text references to cats are somewhat more slight or at times are more figurative.

Christianna Brand’s Cat and Mouse (1950) certainly embodies the latter point well and as mentioned earlier on, we have our Siamese cat. (N. B. Developing some kind of drinking game with this post and Siamese cats may not be a healthy idea…)

Then there is Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Window at the White Cat (1910), the cat in question being the name of a member only club. A number of covers for this title feature no cat at all, yet the two which I found that do are by far the more striking and memorable, even if they’re not the most realistic. For me they are striking and, in some ways, hit a sinister note.

In the case of this cover for Dorothy L Sayers’ Clouds of Witness (1926), I would say the disparity between the book and tone/vibe the cover transmits is at its greatest – and is it just me, or does that cat look a little radioactive?

There are legions of cozy crime novels which revolve around cats and I am now going to take you through them all…

… only joking! However, before these modern mystery series turned up, the idea of a series of novels all linked with cat-based titles, started much earlier. I don’t know if D. B. Olsen’s series was the first but between 1939 and 1956, she wrote 13 mysteries starring Rachel Murdock and each title includes a cat in it. I wouldn’t say the feline role is always pronounced in these tails tales, although I have only read one of them, so cannot say for definite. The cat in question is Rachel’s and it is called Samantha. When it came to Cats Don’t Need Coffins (1946), the Saturday Review wrote that the ‘title [was] rather dragged in by Samantha’s tail.’ Nevertheless, the series did receive an interesting array of covers…

The Cat Saw Murder (1939) easily wins the cutest cat on a cover award. The poor thing really does look like it has seen something shocking!

Meanwhile The Cat Wears a Mask (1949) is wonderful for how bizarre it is and who knows maybe it will give some readers inspiration for new masks to wear on their essential trips at the moment. Though maybe we don’t want to cause a mass panic in Tesco by wearing an exact replica of the mask shown below…

Yet it is not always the writer who decides to use cats as a common motif for a series of a books, as last year when the Dean Street Press reprinted 6 titles by E. & M. A. Radford, 4 of them incorporate cats in some way. These are all shown below, and I have to admit I do find them rather appealing, even if cats don’t necessarily crop up in all of the stories. When I asked about the inspiration behind these covers, amongst others, Dean Street Press mentioned that their decision was rather a ‘capricious one,’ but cited the popularity of cats as one of the reasons, as well the fact felines have ‘a good affinity with most of the kind of crime fiction we publish, being both playful and deadly creatures.’ Death of a Frightened Editor (1959) has to be my favourite. I invariably have a soft spot for anthropomorphism.

Earlier I mentioned that cats have been used to suggest a sinister and eerie atmosphere, with publishers no doubt hoping to entice readers in, with the promise of thrills and menace. For these types of covers a black cat is more often than not employed and there is frequently an emphasis placed upon the eyes of the cat, which at times may be enlarged or changed to a different colour, such as in these covers:

Scraggly fur and a thin body are other characteristics used to create a threatening feline. Suffice to say the cat on the cover of Carter Dickson’s The Plague Court Murders (1934) looks far from impressed with the reader…

And even just the inclusion of a paw or leg can be used to set a sinister tone, though if anyone else has read The Black Paw (1941) by Constance and Gwenyth Little, then you’ll know that this book is rather more comic than scary:

I decided in the end to not just write a post listing my favourite or least favourite cat covers, but if I was going to choose the cover I liked the least, then I would have to go with this particular edition of The Cat Wears a Noose (1944) by D. B. Olsen:

This is the only edition I have seen with this type of artwork. Others as shown below seem to steer away from this idea a bit:

Something else I found quite interesting when researching this post was looking at just one title and then charting the various covers it has had over time. As cover artwork tastes and trends changed, so did the way the cats were used on the covers. The first novel I looked at in this way was A. A. Fair’s Cats Prowl at Night (1943), which is a Bertha Cool and Donald Lam mystery.

This earlier edition, from the Dell Publishing Company in 1949, is my favourite of the four I have included below. I love the bold colours and the very quirky use of the cat on the cover.

These later editions by Dell and Avon are less creative and tend to fall more into the generic sinister cat rut…

How friendly a cat seems on a cover also changes over times for Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat (1941), though the changes are more varied and erratic for this title. The earlier Pocket Book editions alternately provide moderate feline menace and another Siamese cat. If you did decide to play a Siamese cat drinking game, then it is time to down another shot…

Meanwhile the cat in this cover from the 1960s has more of a “Please take me home” look on his face:

Yet jumping ahead to the 1985 Ballantine Books edition we have more of a full on grump from the cat in question…

Finally, this more recent edition from 2012 definitely has the highest cute factor and I am sure it would not need to ask if anyone would want to take it home…

Lastly, I decided to look at Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons (1959). No blog post on the subject would be complete without a mention of this title. This time the covers start out with a more sinister feline image beginning with the 1959 Red Badge Mystery edition:

And the 1961 Pocket Book edition follows a similar theme:

However, by the mid-60s a more creative approach was taken, again with an emphasis placed on the eye of the cat:

This 1979 version is probably my least favourite, as it feels a bit too bland and generic:

This last one, which I think is a Fontana edition from 1981, reminds me of my cat Agatha. Both cats are physically very different, but the facial expression puts me in mind of the time my cat first encountered pig poo. Not realising that smelly mud should be avoided at all costs she managed to walk through quite a bit of it. Let’s just say her face looked very similar to the one in this picture after she had given herself a wash. (N. B. I should point out I had cleaned the worst of it from her first, but it did take a while for a smell for go away. She never made the same mistake again…)

Another trend I noticed in mystery fiction cat covers was a strong line in artwork which has the cat looking decidedly guilty or shocked.

I don’t know about you but personally I found these covers to be more amusing than alarming!

And speaking of funny covers, here are some others, which I don’t think were designed to be humorous, but they certainly had that effect on me…

The cat on this cover of Frances and Richard Lockridge’s Death of a Tall Man (1946) seems to be unimpressed with the smell emanating from the coffin on this cover.

I am sure someone has been given a grant to research this, but a grumpy cat invariably manages to be comical, as we can see in this edition of The Puzzle of Silver Persian (1943) by Stuart Palmer:

This third humorous example is funny to me simply because this seems like one of the riskiest places to drape a cat, bare shoulders after all. It probably doesn’t help that the cat in question looks rather unfriendly. One loud noise and I would not want to be in that woman’s shoes, or in this case shoulders…

Finally, I was intrigued to discover that a film I am fond of, That Darn Cat (1965), was based on a book called Undercover Cat (1963) by Gordon Gordon and Mildred Gordon. They also wrote the script for the Disney film.

I was a little puzzled though why the cover for the original book did not feature a Siamese cat. Yet upon investigation I found that the original story featured a black cat instead. The change of cat came about during the Disney adaptation. Perhaps it was felt a Siamese cat would look better on film than a black one? Or maybe they only had access to a Siamese cat who could complete the activities required of it? Interestingly, when the Gordons wrote a follow up novel, Undercover Cat Prowls Again (1966), a Siamese cat is shown on the cover. I think this was supposed to be made into a film, like its’ predecessor, but the project fell through.

So there you have it! The first Death Paints a Picture post. I hope you enjoyed it and as I said earlier, let me know your suggestions for future post themes.

24 comments

  1. I thought of the Radford immediately because I have wondered about the cat fixation, given only Dick Whittington could be said to include a ‘cat.’ That cat on the Sayers’ looks not only radioactive but rather like a mutant gingerbread cat!
    I love book covers so will be charmed to see what’s next. Knowing your love of chickens, could that follow? Are there any covers with chickens on them?!

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    • haha a mutant gingerbread cat! I know which bit of the book it is referring to but the cover as a whole doesn’t really set you up for the rural/trial based mystery that Clouds of Witness is. Looks too exotic.
      Sorely tempted to do a chicken post, though I may need to do some non-animal themes first. There is an Innes title called Appleby Plays Chicken, maybe that will have produce some chicken covers. If you google covers for Easy to Kill by Christie, there are two with a cockerel on. I wouldn’t be surprised if cockerels turned up on a few covers.

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  2. Dell cover of Cats Prowl at Night suggests a crossover with Batman as Cool and Lam try to ensnare everyone’s favorite cat burglar, Catwoman. I also like the colorful cover of Crane’s The Applegreen Cat, which I’ve never seen before!

    The American editions of A.C. Baantjer’s DeKok and the Sorrowing Tomcat comes with two different cover variations of the same illustration: a black cat sitting on a dagger. In one of the covers, the cat is scheming with half-closed eyes and in the other the cat is depicted as a bright-eyed, innocent looking ball of fluff. I believe one was used for the hardback edition and the other for the paperback reprint.

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    • haha yes the Dell cover is one of my favourites, though I did wonder how much it linked into the actual plot… I wonder if they were trying to tap into the super hero fan market with this cover.
      It’s interesting to hear about the differing strategies the Baantjer book went with – must have been a bit confusing if they were sat next to each other!

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  3. “There are legions of cozy crime novels which revolve around cats and I am now going to take you through them all…”

    LOL!

    Nifty idea, blogging about common cover tropes, and their variations. I look forward to more.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Don’t know how I missed this last month. Love the post. The first cover of the Rinehart title is rather creepy–the transparent effect on the cat is pretty unsettling. ESG’s Curious Kitten would also be worth exploring for cover art and the two Enid Blyton Findouters books (not in the category that you’re exploring, but mysteries nonetheless)–The Mystery of the Disappearing Cat, and The Mystery of the Pantomime Cat.

    Liked by 1 person

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