We are back to school this month with the latest post in the Death Paints a Picture series. Each month, so far this year, I have been looking at mostly vintage mystery novel covers, on given themes – keeping an eye for the bizarre and interesting ones along the way.
If you have missed the other posts in the series, you can find them here:
January: The Feline Edition
February: Artistic Equipment
March: Modes of Transport
April: The Musical Edition
May: Time Pieces
Some of the topics for this series have been harder to locate covers for than others, but thankfully, that cannot be said of this month’s theme, as the crime fiction genre is not short of academic mysteries. With that in mind I have had to be selective when it comes to choosing titles and covers, so apologies in advance for overlooking your favourite books. However, I should point out that some seemingly obvious titles have not been included as I could not find a thematically appropriate cover. Not every scholastic mystery ends up with such a cover, as artists could go in very different directions, as the covers below show:
In this post I will be including schools and universities under this theme, although I will mostly be sticking to adult mysteries rather than ones for a younger audience, as I felt this would make too large a scope for one post.
Warning! This post contains academia-based puns. Do not attempt a drinking game with them and there is a risk of injuring the muscles you use to groan at bad jokes with.
Education is associated with an array of objects and these objects often make their way on to the covers of mystery novels. Unsurprisingly, the blackboard is one such item:
I felt the Nancy Spain cover was particularly good at juxtaposing the bright colours with the grim idea of murder. Sometimes though the blackboard image was given added gruesomeness and I think the Helen Farrar title is a strong example of this:
Posters for mystery films also made use of this motif:
Incidentally, this film poster is for the 1953 film adaptation of Maisie Sharman’s Death in Seven Hours (1952), not of the Q. Patrick title.
Naturally, I came frequently came across covers featuring schoolteachers. Many of these are utilised in a traditional manner:
However, I thought this cover for Robert Barnard’s Death of an Old Goat (1974), was interestingly different:
Moreover, some artists went for more dramatic covers by depicting the teacher after being murdered:
The skeleton motif was also another strategy cover artists commonly deployed to add a touch of the macabre. Sometimes it is just a skull for a head, (invariably donned in a stereotypical teacher’s cap) …
… but sometimes a full skeleton body is used to represent the teacher:
Finally, an interesting variation of this can be found on the Dell Mapback edition of Timothy Fuller’s Harvard has a Homicide (1936), as a scarecrow is made from a teacher’s gown and cap. The back cover includes the map of the grounds, and this brings us along to our next category…
Scholastic buildings is probably the most common image used on a cover to indicate that the mystery is going to have a school link, especially if the educational establishment is either a university or a private school. This can be seen on these two covers below, which are both covers for upcoming titles that are being released later this year by the British Library and Verse Chorus Press respectively:
Of course one author who must be mentioned at this point is Edmund Crispin and whilst some of his cases take place in Oxford (see below), Love Lies Bleeding (1948), is a school-set mystery where Gervase Fen is asked to give a talk at speech day. Interestingly there is another story with a similar setup by Frank Dobbs, fittingly called Speech Day Murder (1962).
Moreover, whilst Gladys Mitchell is by no means a favourite writer of mine, several of her books have a school-based setting, including this one:
Some covers within this category are more creative than others and here are some of my highlights:
I liked how the school is depicted on a small chalk board.
This is another cover from the Dell Mapback series. There is something about academic mysteries which makes them apt for being a part of this imprint.
Whilst the Agora edition is more traditional, (with a brooding sinister air), I quite liked the art deco Spanish edition from 2015. I have included the Italian cover, simply because it amuses me due to the building looking very unlike a school.
The jigsaw pieces are a nice touch here.
Both covers are good at exuding a sinister and frightening tone. The first cover takes a blunter approach to doing so with its grim reaper, but the low lighting in the second cover achieves this effect more subtly.
Another Gladys Mitchell title and I liked how a school bag is created out of the school building.
Blood is a go to option for adding drama and suggesting death on a mystery cover, regardless of the theme, and scholastic mysteries are no different and in the examples below, this bodily fluid is put on the school buildings themselves:
Anyone fond of a university set mystery will be aware of how popular Cambridge and Oxford are in such works. In fiction at least they are the equivalent of academic Midsummer Murders. Here is a small selection of Cambridge-set mysteries…
… and here are a few more for Oxford:
Whilst the outside of school buildings is more common that does not mean that their interiors are overlooked as there is a smaller cache of adult mysteries whose covers focused upon them. First up there are school dormitories:
Bizarrely with this last book, the dormitory is mentioned in the title, but not included on the cover. I also managed to find a cover with what I believe is a school hall on…
…as well as one situated within a classroom. I was surprised that there were not more with classroom on their covers, but I imagine I would have found more if I had included more juvenile mysteries.
This is slightly cheating, but I thought this cover for Marion Boyd’s Murder in the Stacks (1939) could count as an example of a school library:
I felt it was all the grimmer because we see so little.
So we have had teachers on covers, so it is only right that we now look at school pupils. I didn’t feel these were as common within the adult mystery bracket. Naturally they are much more prolific on covers for mysteries designed for a younger audience. Sometimes students are only implied by a piece of clothing, such as a simple school cap…
… but at other times a more deadly tone is set with a school tie being used as a noose:
One definite difference I noticed on the covers that I found was that covers depicting female students, presented them as being much more in peril:
Conversely, in the main, covers with male students on, tended to show them more often in groups and an adventurous rather than dangerous tone is set up:
N. B. School for Murder is another title for Little Victims.
However, I think I found one cover where a male student has been bumped off:
Another school associated object is the apple, and I found a couple of titles which give this a nice deadly edge:
In my Death Paints a Picture posts I try to include a couple of titles whose covers I examine over time, to see what changes occur. This time around I decided to firstly look at Miss Pym Disposes (1946) by Josephine Tey. Regular blog readers will know this is not a favourite book of mine, but I felt it would be wrong to not include it in the post. Surprisingly, there are far fewercovers depicting a traditional school setting than I expected.
However, there was a plentiful supply of more unusual and ‘creative’ ones, which I thought I would share with you, beginning with this 1964 Swedish edition:
Is this a gymnast hanging upside down? I am even less sure with this next one from Portugal 1966…
She sort of looks like she is peering through a letter box or through a trap door? This next one has a stronger scholastic theme, but it is still a bit odd…
Meanwhile in 1984 Penguin seems to have gone with more of a nature tone…
As to what this 2008 Italian edition is trying to depict, it is anyone’s guess…
It is easier to decide what is going on in this Spanish cover from 2015. It is just a pity that none of it is particularly relevant to the story. Maybe this was why Miss Pym was such a shoddy sleuth – she was looking in the wrong places…
Despite being released in 2018, I would say this Kindle cover is rocking a decidedly 1990s vibe…
Of course, no post looking at scholastic mystery book covers could possibly be complete without including some of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night (1935). Although I will only be cherry picking out certain ones, as there are a ridiculous number of them on Goodreads.
This one is possibly the first or if not one of the earlier covers and the hanging teacher dummy motif is picked up again in the 1968 Avon edition and these two Dutch editions, which you can see below:
Meanwhile, this Swedish 1964 edition changes tack and gives us a scholarly looking Lord Peter Wimsey:
Whilst the 1979 German edition opts for a building scene, which is a motif that has cropped up a lot in new editions in the last 20 years.
Jumping ahead to the 1990s here is a Finnish cover, which has decided to go for untrodden ground by focusing on candles. Are they mentioned somewhere, such as in the chapel scene or something? However, in case you are wondering, this is not the weirdest cover.
That prize probably goes to this Kindle version from 2018. I am really not sure what the rationale for this one was…
Then again, this other Kindle edition from 2018, (what was it about 2018 that inspired such bizarre covers?), is somewhat outré too…
I am trying to picture some form of meeting in which the artist was told to create a cover which would really stand out from the others. Well they certainly managed to do that if nothing else!
You may be wondering why I have not mentioned Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons (1959), since that mostly takes place at a school. The reason for that is because in the main the school background is rarely depicted on the covers for this book in English:
Cats, jewels and tennis rackets dominate instead. You find a few more school building type covers on translated editions, although some of these have more of a country house feel:
My personal favourite of these ones, is this Portuguese 1990 edition, which has an early grumpy cat meme wannabe:
These two Chinese editions from 2006 and 2003, respectively, also go for the building motif. However, the first one makes me think of a down at heel bungalow and the second reminds me of cloisters.
We come to the end of my brief survey of academic themed mystery covers and I decided to conclude with these two miscellaneous covers, which somewhat bookend the educational journey.
As always I would love to hear about the inevitable book covers that I have missed and which titles are your favourite. I invariably find at the end of these posts that I have actually read very few of the titles mentioned. My score this time round is only 15 books. Let me know how many you have read too!
Death Paints a Picture is going on holiday in July, (not me – I wish!), but don’t worry the series will be back.