Death Paints a Picture: Time Pieces

The theme for this month’s Death Paints a Picture post is time pieces. If you are new to this monthly series, then you can catch up with previous posts here:

To begin with I thought I would look at the different types of time pieces that have made it on to the covers of mystery fiction. A whole range of sizes are included and at times even include famous time telling devices such as Big Ben:

This next example is not a book cover but how could I miss an opportunity to include pictures from the wonderful Basil the Great Mouse Detective:

Clock towers also appear more generically on covers including Leslie Ford’s By the Watchman’s Clock (1932) and Two O’clock Courage (1934) by Gelett Burgess.

Burgess’ novel concerns an amnesiac who is trying to rediscover his identity as well as figure out whether he has committed a murder or not. This book has been adapted for film at least twice, once in 1936 under the name Two in the Dark and later in 1945 called by its original title.

Coming down in size considerably, we then have grandfather clocks and Carter Dickson’s cover certainly shows an unusual additional use for such a time piece!

An unusual time piece which cropped up more times than I thought it would, was the hourglass:

I never knew an hourglass could look so gruesome! In the case of the Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh covers below the inclusion of an hourglass surprised me.

One wonders what prospective readers of Murder in Retrospect would have thought they were getting with such a cover!

Cuckoo clocks also get a mention, including in Ozaki’s impossible crime novel. Confusingly Roger Silverwood’s book has been published under more than one title I think (The Cuckoo Clock Murders/ The Cuckoo Clock Scam).

Given the era most of my reading comes from, it is unsurprising to find a mantlepiece clock of this kind on a cover…

…as well as the odd alarm clock:

Pocket watches were a popular type of time piece to find on a cover:

The last covers by the Coles are my favourites as it amuses me to see such oversized pocket watches!

Finally, I found one lonesome wristwatch. This was a time piece I only came across the once. Perhaps it is too small an item to notice when being worn by a character.

My hunt for time piece covers also brought to my attention two covers which put clocks in unusual places, oddities which are very much an integral part of the plots they feature in.

Although it should be said that not all cover artists have gone for the more traditional depiction of Gardner’s title:

One of the things which made this month’s task of looking for covers easier is that clock covers are often accompanied by a title which is time themed also, though this was not always the case. Sometimes a clock or timepiece is included on the cover because in the mystery a death is said to take place at a specific time.

Bizarrely I don’t think the covers for the Christie depict the same time though! The Wentworth cover is also very striking, although it does not really fit in with the cosier tone of the story itself.

Striking clocks is only one of the time related phrases which appear often in mystery fiction. There also seems to be quite a few called Dead on Time (*cue riotous laughter*).

The creativity points go to the Keating covers. Nevertheless, a clock in the title does not guarantee a clock on the cover, such as with Joel Townsley Rogers’ 1958 novel The Stopped Clock.

Along with the mention of Crofts earlier in this post, JJ will also be pleased that I have included another of his favourite authors, even if it is one of my direst reads ever. It is of course R. Austin Freeman’s Mr Polton Explains (1940) a.k.a. Mr Polton Nearly Kills Kate off with Boredom. Most of the book concerns the eponymous Mr Polton whose tedious life history as a watchmaker’s apprentice eventually enables him to help Dr Thorndyke to solve a case.

For this edition of Death Paints a Picture I have gone with 2 Agatha Christie titles and 1 John Dickson Carr novel for my Covers Over Time segment.

I am sure all Carr fans will be anticipating my choice of Death Watch (1935). Covers for this title start off suitably dramatic:

Though things are very much toned down for the Collier 1935 edition:

I am reminded a little of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. But we are back with the suspense with the 1958 Berkeley cover:

The 1963 Penguin edition is sinister but I can’t say I like it very much:

We then hit the 1970s during which many editions of this book were produced. First up is the quirky 1975 Hamish Hamilton cover…

…followed by another skull/clock design by Collier in 1976:

1976 also saw the release of this slightly odd Hungarian edition:

Then in 1977 we have this Italian cover:

More skull clocks on the way in 1984 with the Macmillan Publishing Company edition:

Finally, it is a shame to conclude with a more recent reprint in 2014, which has such a bland cover:

Unsurprisingly there are a plethora of covers for The Seven Dials Mystery (1929) and many of these are ones in translation. Therefore, I have only cherry picked out a selection of covers, which are interesting or indicate a design trend.

Beginning with the original first edition cover, we see a design with hats that feature clocks, and this is a motif which is picked up by some later cover designs.

With this next one I am wondering if this is a US first edition, but if it is not just let me know and I will alter this line accordingly.

Fontana goes with some bold colours in their 1954 cover…

…whilst Bantam add a sinister note to their cover with a skull peering out of the clock face.

Our next cover is the first in the list to be one in translation. It is Dutch and was printed in the 1990s and I love how the clocks are sat around a table.

Meanwhile here we have a more minimalist Bulgarian cover from 1994:

We then have a hilarious cover from Norway which was produced in 1996 according to Goodreads. Is the killer wearing a cat suit and a clock mask?

As with the Carr title, recent English covers tend to be a bit more generic such as these two from 2001.

However, a more aesthetically interesting cover is this Chinese edition from 2003:

Another recent in translation cover is this Indonesian one from 2012 and whilst I like the clock bubbles, I am unsure how the flask fits in with the story…

Three year later sees a Turkish reprint of the title, which seems to give impression of a mummy being a part of the story!

Finally, I am not sure when this cover was created, but it is in Arabic and interestingly it includes the clocks on the hats which we saw in the first edition cover.

The last Christie I am going to be looking at is surprise surprise The Clocks (1963). There are over 200 editions listed on Goodreads and they probably cover the full range of clocks.  I must admit there are a lot of covers which aren’t very creative, but then with a title like The Clocks, it is quite easy to do a lazy cover.

My first cover choice is an early Spanish one, with Poirot peering out of a pocket watch…

… and hot on the heels of that one came a Portuguese edition:

This cover manages to be jaunty and sinister all at the same time! The 1965 Pocket Book edition continues the sinister vibe with this version of a cuckoo clock:

The 1966 Fontana edition, designed by Tom Adams, is quite a simple cover but manages to be striking nevertheless:

Although in 1981 they seem to have gone with a more left field option…

Whilst in the 1990s we have a more deconstructionist approach from France:

The clock gear theme continues with the Berkley 2000 edition…

… whilst in 2002 China went for a more sinister tone:

Then we get minimalism with the Harper Collins cover that came out in the same year:

In the last decade we also have this French edition, which has a fantastically awful shade of green:

The 2002 Harper Collins cover finds a descendant in this Romanian edition from 2011:

This next cover is an Indonesian one from 2012 and I felt it took a creative approach to constructing a clock image:

Meanwhile it is all about the drama with this 2014 Portuguese cover…

… as is the case with this 2015 Vietnamese edition:

Clock hands are also put to a deadly use in this more recent Indonesian cover released in 2019:

Finally, I have saved the most bizarre, (and therefore the best?) until last, with this Persian edition. I am unsure of the date it was published, nor do I know why the clock has a bat wing sprouting from it…

To conclude my post I thought I would share some of the more creative covers depicting clocks. Sometimes this can just be quite a small thing, such as with Frank Gruber’s The Talking Clock, which has bones making up the two sides of the clock (1941):

Another approach taken was to use human figures as part of the clock face where you would normally see numbers:

Alternatively, Leslie Ford’s By the Watchman’s Clock also has a cover in which two humans replace a clock’s hands.

Clock hands can also appear out of unusual places as well clocks themselves being put in less traditional locations:

In addition, the inner workings of the clock can also be focused on such as in the cover below:

This next one is one of my favourites. Its sinisterness chimes in well with the mystery’s title:

The skeletal motif also crops up in this earlier mystery by Rufus King:

King’s title also has this unusual cover. I can’t decide if the clock face contains little daggers or syringes:

A clock is also incorporated into much bigger objects such as in the cover below…

Last of all is The Case of the Barking Clock (1947) by Harry Stephen Keeler, a title which like so many of Keeler’s, leave you somewhat intrigued and puzzled.

I hope you enjoyed this month’s Death Paints a Picture Post. Don’t forget to vote for next month’s theme. How many of the titles mentioned above have you read? I only managed a paltry 13!


    • I have read all of Christie but I sometimes muddle what happens in the books with what happens in the adaptations which have made changes/ Thinking more Suchet than Phelps here. I definitely wouldn’t be confusing her adaptations with the real thing!


  1. You can accuse of me being partial, if you like, but the last two covers of The Skeleton in the Clock are the best. They’re exactly what vintage mystery covers are supposed to look like.

    I’ve only read a paltry nine titles including the Dutch edition of The Seven Dials Mystery, which is part of the Pastel-reeks with every cover having a similar style of drawing. I believe they have become somewhat popular over the years with collectors.

    Gosho Aoyama’s Case Closed, vol. 30 also has an interesting time-piece cover with Conan checking his wristwatch against the background of the inside of a huge clock.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think the creature in the Norwegian version of “The Seven Dials Mystery” is a bird, not a cat (judging by the leg).

    Back in the 40s there used to be a paperback imprint called Big Ben Books which featured a picture of the aforesaid clock on its covers (there still is a company of that name, but i don’t know if it is the same one). And my edition of “Trouble in the Town Hall” by Jeanne M. Dams has a clock of some sort of the cover, but I’m not sure if it’s on top of the town hall or not. (It may be mentioned in the text – it’s a while since I read it).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Kate, one of your ‘awaiting trial’ books ‘Time to Change Hats’ by Margot Bennett has a clock face on both the UK and US original dust-jackets

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Another Perry Mason title with a timepiece is the Penguin 1960s edition of The Case of the Careless Kitten (a watch is shown because it is one of the items found in the dead man’s possession, although the face is replaced by a pair of red lips and a large arrow, too big to be one of the hands).

    Liked by 1 person

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