Today’s post is the latest instalment in my Death Paints a Picture series, which I started doing in January. These posts aim to examine the cover art of (predominantly vintage) mystery fiction. Each post explores one specific theme and so far these posts have looked at cats and artistic equipment.
Since, in the main, the most frequent modes of transport to be depicted on a cover were trains, planes, cars and boats, my post looks at each of these separately in their own section. However, at the end of the post I will take a quick look at some of the less common modes of transport. I have excluded horse riding and skiing from this post, as I felt these could be used in other Death Paints a Picture posts.
Seasoned readers of vintage mystery fiction will know how much some authors liked to write a train-based mystery. In some cases, this is due to the train being an important part of a victim’s last movements or a suspect’s alibi. One such book, from the Alibi King himself, is Freeman Wills Croft’s Sir John Magill’s Last Journey (1930). As you will see in other covers later, a skull is often added to an object to make something seem more sinister.
Through doing research for this post, I also came to realise that John Rhode rather enjoyed creating a train mystery as well. At times a victim is killed whilst on a train, such as in Death in the Tunnel (1936), whilst in Tragedy on the Line (1931) a killer attempts to disguise a murder as an accident, by leaving a corpse on the tracks.
Even if a train does not feature heavily in a book, it can still manage to make it on to the cover. For example, with the book covers below, the plots begin with a train journey that is either starting or finishing.
The last two titles also have the additional bonus of a murder being committed on the train themselves. Though the remainder of the narratives by and large stay clear of further train travel. Additionally, a body being thrown from a train crops up quite a bit on mystery covers, no doubt due to the drama it evokes.
Nevertheless, some stories incorporate trains more extensively, using them as a primary setting for their plots.
The Wheel Spins (1936) by Ethel Lina White is one such book and due to it being adapted by Alfred Hitchcock into the film The Lady Vanishes (1938), it has been reprinted quite a few times. I particularly enjoyed this first cover, for an audio edition, as I liked how the train becomes part of a gun a woman is holding. The fact no one gets shot on a train by a woman in this book is beside the point…
Some covers are more relevant than others. Given the original title it is not surprising that a wheel is often used as a focal point. With the first cover we get the sense of a train hurtling towards its destination as time runs out for our heroine to save the day. However, the artist doing the second cover must have been a bit rushed as they have very much included the wrong kind of wheel…
Interestingly, a 1944 edition by the Popular Library, includes an anachronistic Nazi soldier on the cover, despite their being none in the book, (a trend which reminds me of some Agatha Christie TV adaptations of recent years).
Another consequence of Hitchcock’s adaptation is that the book has been translated several times and I thought some of the foreign edition covers were quite interesting. In particular, the first one, a Polish translation, is my favourite.
In keeping with my previous Death Paints a Picture post, I am once more going to select specific titles and explore the covers they have received over time and what better book for this topic than Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934). There are a ridiculous amount of covers for this one, so I am just giving the edited highlights, as a lot of them are fairly generic. In some ways I was a bit disappointed there were not more creative covers. Perhaps the iconic setting and the well-known plot line encourages less imaginative artwork.
It only seems fitting to begin with the first UK edition and I thought it was interesting that the artist decided to focus on the train’s workmen, rather than passengers.
Meanwhile, the first American edition emphasises the snow bound nature of the train and even helpfully circles which coach the murder takes place in and provides an annotated map of the train on the back, which I rather liked.
This desire to be helpful continues with the 1941 Pocket Book edition which this time uses a bold arrow to show you which coach contains death…
I also really liked this later American edition too, with the title following the bumps of the snow:
In more recent times there seems to be a persistent trend in featuring red smoke billowing from the train. If in doubt make something red on the cover, to make it more sinister. From left to right these editions are: Harper (2007), Greek (2009), Unknown (2017) and Spanish (2018).
I thought the Greek one was the most engaging with the train in the palm of someone’s hands, as it conjures up the idea of fate. This Portuguese edition from 2014 is also unusual with a clock on the front of the train:
Whilst many of the covers for Christie’s book were not very imaginative, other titles by different authors have fared better. Firstly, there is this Dell edition of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Man in Lower 10 (1909), which uses the train to create a sinister face.
Or if you ignore the other eye then you have a cyclops train. Secondly, there is Conyth Little’s Great Black Kanba (1944), which I liked due to the way the train transforms into a snake-like creature.
Then there is Song of Doom (1932) by Virgil Markham. I thought this one was quite eye catching with its sinister choice of colours and I also liked the way the woman’s hair flows behind her, reflecting the speed of the passing train.
Finally, this last cover creates a sense of drama with the train bursting out of the cover:
I think this mode of transport has been quite popular for thrillers and espionage mysteries in previous decades, as often I found that the books with such covers tended to be within those two subgenres. However, there are exceptions.
Planes are good at creating visible drama on a cover, especially when they have crashed, as you can see below:
Whilst it is perhaps less common for murder to be committed on a plane than a train, there are some such examples. Death occurs on a plane in Christopher St John Sprigg’s Death of an Airman (1935), Rufus King’s Obelists Fly High (1935) and The Flying Plane Mystery (1935) by Franco Vailati.
It is intriguing that these three were all published in the same year. Vailati’s book is also a locked room mystery, as a man disappears during a flight, inside a locked bathroom.
One cannot forget to mention Christie’s Death in the Clouds, which was also published in 1935. That was clearly the year for aeroplane mysteries! Given the choice of setting for the murder, planes feature a lot on the covers for this book. The UK first edition rather pleasingly uses plane writing for the title:
However, I was less impressed with the USA first edition in terms of the image clarity and the chosen colour scheme.
The most iconic cover though has to be the 1974 Fontana edition, with the artwork done by Tom Adams.
In a similar way to the covers for Murder on the Orient Express with red smoke, there are also number of Death in the Clouds covers which adopt a similar motif.
However, I think this Turkish cover from 1992 is a bit lazier as it just puts a blob of paint on top of the plane:
In contrast I quite liked this French edition from 2010. It’s simple but it still manages to stand out from other covers.
At times the use of cars on mystery fiction covers can be somewhat generic, or at least not be overly relevant to the plot contained within. For example, we have a woman using a car as a hiding place on this Dell edition of Delano Ames’ Murder Begins at Home (1949):
Whilst with George Harmon Coxe’s The Camera Clue (1937) I think the woman looks distinctly unimpressed with her ride home…
However, there are occasions when a car cover is more meaningfully employed, such as with Calling all Cars (1934) by Henry Holt and The League of Gentlemen (1958) by John Boland. In one the pursuit is very much on catching the bad guys, whilst Boland’s tale seems to be more interested in the criminals making their escape, (one imagines cars have to feature in that somewhere).
Driving for sporting interests has also been combined with the mystery novel. To begin with there is John Rhode’s The Motor Rally Mystery (1933), and in the first cover it does look a little like the man has pushed the car off the cliff…
However, one writer who became well-known for writing mysteries within the racing milieu was Douglas Rutherford. He doesn’t seem to have any background in racing, being a modern languages teacher, but I guess it must have been a hobby that interested him.
A popular role for cars within mystery novels, is as a great place to kill someone or leave a body, especially the back seat or the boot. Arson is sometimes an added extra. This aspect of the plot is then often displayed on the cover as there are a number of examples which do this:
Not only are cars handy locales for stashing a corpse, but they can also be used to do the killing, (whether this is intentional or not) and again this is something which covers highlight:
I’ve not read the last title by Wade, but from what I read online it involves an attempted murder through car sabotage, so I wonder whether one of these covers is more accurate than the other.
As with planes, car crashes are also used to make things more dramatic, as we can see with A Capital Crime (1941) by Leslie Ford and Harry Carmichael’s Death Counts Three (1954):
Although even when they are still intact, a vehicle can still be deployed to create a sinister atmosphere, especially when a car is depicted at night, perhaps unattended for some nefarious purpose.
Parts of a car can also be focused upon and like with trains be used to make eerie faces:
The most common component of the car to be emphasised is the steering wheel, though occasionally windscreen wipers are as well:
The last cover is particularly dramatic given its choice of driver.
Boats are another extremely popular cover image choice and they crop up in all shapes and sizes…
It’s hard not to have a panto audience reaction to that last one… and this next novel certainly wins the prize for most unusual location to depict a boat. Indoor boating anyone?
In keeping with trains and planes, boats have been regularly used as setting for mystery novels, as they enable the author to bring together a wide variety of characters, yet at the same time limit the number of possible suspects, (without having to resort to a country house weekend party).
I have gathered some examples below of mysteries where murder occurs on a boat:
I am quite interested in reading this title by Dickson, which is set during WW2 and sees a ship crossing the Atlantic. Murder strikes during the trip, possibly due to military secrets and there are tantalisingly a set of fingerprints which belong to no one on the ship.
I wondered if the cover design for this more recent reprint was inspired by the Carter Dickson cover.
I am not sure if murder takes place on board in this last example but given the explosion on the cover someone is at least going to get a painful splinter or two.
As with cars, boats provide killers with numerous opportunities for bumping off their victim and death by drowning very often occurs, though occasionally this is not the truth upon further investigation. A bank of fog or a remote location make a sailing vessel a tempting place to commit murder. This is case with The Sunken Sailor (1961) by Patricia Moyes, Freeman Wills Crofts’ Man Overboard (1936) and Bruce Hamilton’s Too Much Water (1958). I think some of these covers are better at capturing the sinister nature of murder better than others.
Death at sea is a common facet in Crofts’ work as there is also The Loss of Jane Vosper (1936), in which a ship bound for Buenos Aires explodes and sinks. The sinking ship is the natural focus for the covers, but I liked how the last cover is more creative with this.
However, being set on a boat does not guarantee a boat themed cover as The Widow’s Cruise (1959) by Nicholas Blake has very few such covers and the two that I found only evoke the boat setting quite minimally.
Finally, the section on boats cannot be concluded until we look at one of the most famous boat-based mysteries, Christie’s Death on the Nile (1937). Again, due to the fame of the book, I wonder whether this has impacted the level of creativity given to the covers. That said I do have a fondness for the UK first edition cover:
And one wonderful exception to the lack of creativity rule is this 1966 cover from Norway. I included this cover in my first Christie Cover Quiz and it certainly baffled one reader who decided it must be for the book: ‘Battleship Head Lady and the Mystery of the Terrible Ear-Rings.’
I think there must have been a series of French editions of Christie which all involve paper objects as there is also this 2001 edition of Death of Nile involving a paper boat:
Meanwhile the Czech 2004 edition went for more moody and sombre colours:
And then we have another Turkish Christie translation which adopts the add a splatter of red paint approach, to convey it is a crime novel:
I quite liked this French edition from 2014 with its skull-shaped smoke:
Meanwhile this Indonesian edition from 2018 has intriguingly gone for a red sea:
As promised I also kept a beady eye out for some more unusual modes of transport, or at least those which are less commonly found on mystery covers. For the sea we have a submarine with Allan R Bosworth’s Full Crash Dive (1942):
Or for those who prefer dry land we have a sedan chair…
… a motorbike…
… a truck…
… a caravan (modern and traditional) …
… and a horse-drawn carriage.
However, for those feeling more adventurous there is a hot air balloon with Manning Coles’ Among Those Absent (1948) …
… and a rocket with Boucher’s title.
You can see the cover artists had a lot of fun with this one! Finally, here are some “public” forms of transport which you don’t see as often on covers:
Although given the amount of ambulances which must be called due to all the murders, you would think there would be more of them!
I hope you enjoyed this latest look at vintage mystery covers and don’t forget to vote for next month’s theme.