Judging a Jim by his Cover

imgresMichael Marshall, author of the chilling We Are Here, talks great cover art and how it drew him to his three favourite ‘Jims’: Jim Thompson, James Lee Burke and James Ellroy.

The issue of book jackets is a vexed one. As a novelist you want to believe that it’s what’s between the covers that counts – that deathless prose, a gripping story and your general authorial fabulousness will be the determinants of success.

Hopefully these factors will indeed prove telling, but the truth is that it’s usually how the book looks that draws the eye of a potential reader. They can’t dive into the plot or characters when the book is on a shelf, or exists only as a two-dimensional image online. At these critical early stages we have little choice but to judge a book by its cover.

Thankfully, I’m delighted with the jacket for my new novel, We Are Here. The mystery and suspense genre has long been blessed with great artists and designers, and I have a substantial collection of paperbacks featuring the work of classic artists like Robert McGinnis and Robert Maguire.

Funny that their names begin the same, in fact, as a similarity in nomenclature links the three writers who first pulled me into the mystery/thriller genre – Jim Thompson, James Lee Burke and James Ellroy. The three Jims are further linked by the fact that I first picked up one of their novels without knowing anything about the author, drawn by a striking cover.

The first Thompson I read was The Killer Inside Me, part of Vintage’s classy run of reissues in the 1990s, now reissued by Orion. The story of a small-town sheriff, this novel is the best account of a sociopath I’ve ever read. The conclusion hints at Thompson’s willingness to step outside the bounds of normal narrative (and indeed consensual reality), and it’s this – along with the clarity and directness of his style – that make him an absolute must-read. No-one takes the archetypes of love, greed and death and boils them down with more verve.

Around the same time, I discovered James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series, attracted by the melancholy, poised image on the UK cover of A Stained White Radiance. While Thompson’s novels feel like they inhabit a parallel noir universe, independent of time and place, Burke’s lyric prose evokes the humid, curdled verity of Louisiana and New Orleans with such richness that when I wound up visiting the area several years later, it not only felt like I’d been there before, but I was able to neatly sidestep an attempt to fleece me of a few bucks by a huckster on Bourbon Street, having read of the ruse in one of Burke’s books.

As a card-carrying anal retentive, I was disturbed to realise I’d joined the series several books in, so I then went back to the beginning. If you haven’t read these novels, then buy The Neon Rain and start. Go. Do it now.

Luckily I began at the beginning with Ellroy, with The Black Dahlia, the first book in what’s often referred to as the LA Quartet. Ellroy wrote great stuff before these novels, and has again since, but this is the core, bedrock text of modern noir – a sprawling and vertiginously imagined series of connected novels that’s as hardcore as fiction gets, toughened by detail and a gift for getting under the skin of characters as they unravel in front of your eyes.

In some ways it would be hard to imagine three more different writers within the same genre. Each of Thompson’s novels is populated by fresh set of hapless victims of fate; Burke’s series centres around his detective protagonist (coloured by interaction with his volatile buddy, the wonderful Clete Purcel). Ellroy pans across characters, pulling focus on an ensemble cast who vary in prominence – or fall bloodily by the wayside – across the chronology of the quartet.

In terms of prose, Thompson comes on plain and pulpy and style-of-no-style (though matters are never quite that simple); Burke takes time to smell the flowers and taste the food (while being equally capable of pulling off revealing jump cuts); and Ellroy’s style evolves markedly across the four books, honing toward the tendency to dispense with adverbs and adjectives that (for my taste) he took too far in The Cold Six Thousand, but which works brutally well in White Jazz.

Three great writers, none of whom I would have discovered without good cover treatments. I guess I should feel sheepish about that, but I don’t. It’s how we meet and judge people, after all, when we’re confronted with a new Jim or Jaime in our real lives. We see what they look like, observe how they dress and smile, and we make speculative judgments on the basis of what they say and do.

These are the only clues we get to interior character, and to what the experience of knowing them will be like, though we know full well that the way we appear bears only tangential relation to what’s going on inside us. We make calls about whether to take a chance with people, just as we do with books, and the first step of this dance always begins with how they look.

It’s a risk, and sometimes you’ll get it wrong. Appearances can be deceiving, famously. A person can seem beguiling and still suck. Books can, too – but I’m going to help you out here, bringing the insider knowledge of someone who was lucky enough to be given a steer by some great covers.

You can take my word for this: the three Jims are worth knowing.