Death Paints a Picture: The Musical Edition

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 artwork of (predominantly vintage) mystery fiction. Each post explores one specific theme and this month’s theme as the title suggests is musical instruments.

To date these are the themes I have looked at previously:

Normally, when doing these posts there has been a glut of possible covers to choose from. The difficulty was deciding which to include and which to leave out. However, this was the not the case when I went looking for mystery novel covers with musical instruments on. Whilst there were a few go to titles which I knew to be musically themed mysteries, it took a lot of time to locate the remaining covers. So this month’s post might be a bit shorter than the others, but I thought it would provide an excellent opportunity for my readers to tell or show me all the obvious covers I have somehow managed to miss.

The musical instrument which came up the most often was the piano, either as a whole instrument or with a focus on the black and white keys.

The tagline to this cover intrigued me. Is the man in the picture therefore dead and rigor mortis has left him in that position?

A musical instrument being used as an object to prop a body on is also used on one of the covers for Margaret Scherf’s The Diplomat and the Gold piano (1963). I have only tried the one mystery by Scherf, Glass on the Stairs (1954), which features her amateur duo Emily and Henry Bryce. Unfortunately, I found them sufficiently irksome that I have never tried any more by her.

Constance and Gwenyth Little equally included a piano in one of their mystery novel titles, The Black Piano (1948). I have not read this story, so I am unsure how the piano fits into the plot, since the blurb only mentions a woman getting plastic surgery so she can return to her home town and figure out why someone tried to murder her, as you do…

I struck lucky finding another cover with a piano on, from one of my favourite authors Delano Ames, with his Jane and Dagobert Brown novel, Murder, Maestro Please (1952):

Whilst looking for covers for this book, I also came across the fact that there are two other mystery novels with identical titles from P. B. Maxon and Jack Sharkey.

Of the three books I think Maxon’s is the most sinister.

Meanwhile with Francis Durbridge’s Paul Temple and The Front Page Men (1939), we have potentially have criminal piano tuners to contend with. It is a pity they’re not on the cover!

Not all titles indicate the presence of a piano or a musical theme in their stories, such as with M. G. Eberhart’s The House on the Roof (1935). Whilst some covers focus on the image in the title, others have perhaps gone with a musical theme due to the inclusion of a retired opera star in the story.

I found this Collin Crime Club edition quite interesting as the hands are almost ghostly, with the piano being visible through them. Eberhart’s cover is not the only one which plays around with this image, as I found something similar on one edition of Christopher Bush’s Dead Man’s Music (1931):

And with this second cover, we do have a piano in the background, but a conductor is the primary focus:

A more unusual use of a piano on a cover can be found on one copy of Blues for the Prince (1950) by Bart Spicer, (an author and title I had not heard of, before finding a review on John’s Pretty Sinister blog).

This time all we have are the black and white keys of the piano, utilised in such a way that they look like someone’s teeth.

So what other instruments did I come across?

First up there was a smattering of covers with guitars on:

Ellis Peters’ cover is probably my favourite of the quartet, mainly because I am quite amused by the face peeking from inside the guitar.

Violins also make an appearance here and there too. For instance, there is Rex Stout’s The Broken Vase (1941), which despite its title has quite a musical theme to its plot, involving a dead violinist who may or may not have committed suicide at Carnegie Hall.

I think the first cover by Dell is the more interestingly sinister. The Puzzle Doctor might be able to explain this one, but we also have a violin on the Dean Street Press recent reprint of Brian Flynn’s The Five Red Fingers (1929):

I am only a bit baffled because this mystery from the blurb seems to have a horse racing milieu. Finally, another new author and title for me is Lucille Kallen’s C. B. Greenfield: The Tanglewood Murder (1981), which I came across in John Curran’s The Hooded Gunman (2019):

Next up is another violin cover, which I found on the Pretty Sinister blog, for The Cat and the Fiddle Murders (1954) by E. B. Ronald:

My cat thoroughly approved of this cover as it gives the necessary primary focus to the feline in the title.

Cyril Hare was another author I thought of when compiling the covers for this post, as I remembered When the Wind Blows (1949), being a musically themed story. My memory proved correct as it contains a solo violinist who gets strangled during a concert.

However, when looking for covers for this title, it turns out there were also a number which did not feature a violin, but had a clarinet instead:

I don’t know about you, but I felt some of the clarinet covers were more engaging than the violin ones.

Shifting focus to brass instruments, trumpets make an occasional appearance. Blues for the Prince, unsurprisingly due to its’ jazz theme, has some covers with these on:

I also came across this cover, for an author who is new to me:

Dorothy L. Sayers fans will be relieved to know that I am including covers for The Nine Tailors (1934), with its famous or should infamous bell ringing theme. I know some people really love this book, but it is one of my least favourite by her.

Most are quite undramatic depictions of bells or of people pulling the ropes to work them, but from time to time a more sinister cover emerges.

I think I have also located a cover with a cello, but I might have got my string instruments in a muddle, so let me know if I have got this wrong:

According to Bev, who writes the blog My Reader’s Block, this story mixes chamber music with international espionage. On slightly surer ground in the Dell Mystery series, there is a map back version of The Phantom of the Opera (1909), which features, in suitably creepy a fashion, an organ:

Ngaio Marsh was one of the authors equally sprang to mind when I was planning this post, remembering her novel Overture to Death (1939), which has a piano used in the murder method. Early editions in the UK were somewhat uninspiring to say the least. However, the American first edition makes up for this with its grisliness:

Four years later we have, in 1943, another American edition featuring a piano, though this time the grimness has been reduced to two small skulls on the ground:

Given the desert-like background I was reminded of the work of surrealist artist Salvador Dali. Moving on to the 1950s, we have a Spanish edition, although I don’t think the cover artist has been given much idea of the country village plot:

1962 brings us a Fontana edition of the novel and this is the beginning, I think, of a central image which has remained for decades, on subsequent covers, one way or another:

Although the next Fontana edition in 1967 focuses on the victim pre-death:

But 1973 sees them reverting back to the 1962 mould:

As does the 1978 version…

If it’s not broken why fix it eh?

Jove in 1981 breaks the mould with a different design, the sinister factor coming from the dripping blood on the piano:

However, a higher grisly rating should be given to this Dutch edition of the book from 1982:

Also in 1982 Jove bring out another edition, though this time they have sought inspiration from the Fontana covers by the looks of it:

Not thinking two new editions of Marsh’s book was enough for one decade, Jove then went for another in 1985:

Jumping ahead to 1996, Harper Collins revive the Fontana 1962 motif:

I had been hoping for some more unusual and amusing translated versions, but I couldn’t find any with musical instruments on. I wonder how widely Marsh has been translated.

However, there was another book by Marsh which has quite a musical flavour, one I have not read, called Swing Brother Swing (1949) a.k.a. A Wreath for Riviera. This title would probably win first prize for having the widest variety of different musical instruments on its covers:

The accordion seemed like an unusual instrument to choose, until I read that the victim in the book was an accordion player. This is not a musical instrument but there is a cover with a metronome on also:

Out of all the covers, this first one is probably my favourite. Although Edith Howie’s The Band Plays Murder (1946) does well for number of different instruments on one cover:

Finally, here are two covers which focus on groups of people playing music:

I have read the first of these, and whilst there were several things to like about it, I felt the solution was poorly built up to. As to the other title, this has been reprinted by Coachwhip Publications and I hope to get around to trying it soon.

So do tell me about all the covers I have a nagging feeling I must have missed and keep your eyes peeled for my end of month post in which I reveal next month’s theme. The poll for June’s theme will go up shortly afterwards.

24 comments

  1. Kate, as soon as I saw what had been chosen I knew you would struggle to find covers. I can’t think immediately of any you’ve missed apart from Murder at the Piano by George Bagby. I’m sure I will come up with a few more when I’ve had a further think

    Liked by 2 people

  2. What a beautiful collection of covers! I can only imagine the amount of time it took to find them all! I hope not too many people leave comments telling you about the ones you missed, but here I am, being second in line. An author by the name of Bill Moody has a series of mysteries about a jazz musician named Evan Horne, and almost all the covers of the books depict either trumpets or saxophones. The stories are good, too.

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    • Two I should have thought of straight away: Death on the Down Beat (1941) by Sebastian Farr (pseudonym of a London Music Critic) and The Pianist Shoots First (1938) by Gerald Fairlie though only the Hodder paperback has a piano/pianist on the cover, not the first edition

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    • Yes it does take quite a bit of time, as there is no unified website of all the books covers, so I am often looking through The Hooded Gunman, drawling through the Dell Mapback website, googling authors books generally and then looking on blogs for themed titles. I never realised how few covers there were available until I started looking. I just assumed there was bound to be a lot, as I just picture music as quite a common theme, when it probably isn’t. Thank you for your additional suggestion.

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    • Yes I did stop and pause to think if there was a musical Christie, but there isn’t particularly, nothing major enough to make it on to a cover. Even the theatre is used very minimally. I did try to see if there was an Allingham, but I couldn’t locate one.

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  3. These covers are great. I like how they span from romantic to macabre.

    It seems those ‘Murder Maestro Please’ books are riffing on the title of a song that was popular from the 1930s through the 1950s : ‘Music, Maestro, Please’.

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  4. The one you think is a cello is indeed a cello.

    However, the ones you think have flutes actually have clarinets (as, I see, required by the text). And damn it, a book called “[When the] Wind Blows [Death],” if is going to have an instrument at all, bloody well ought to have a BLOWN, WIND instrument on its cover and not (for god’s sake) a fiddle.

    What a fun recap. I love the last one, with its surreal chase along a rippling trail of notation. I do hope designers stay away from the “skeletal fingers playing a keyboard” concept for a couple of decades, though. Can we say it’s played out?

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    • ha! I was so worried about the cello not being a cello, that I managed to make a mistake with a different one! I have corrected my post accordingly. And yes the last cover is one of my favourites too.

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  5. Fun! Thank you for doing these monthly features!

    I don’t think I’ve read The Black Piano either, but I do seem to recall that some of the Littles’ novels use a black whatever in the title that’s very tangential to the story, because they had to make it fit the series.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. You’ve only changed one of the references to a flute; there’s another one lower down. And when you say “grizzly”, I think you mean “grisly”.

    Also, looking at the Jove 1985 cover of Overture to Death, I immediately thought, “Surely Alleyn doesn’t look like that?”

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