Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Seven Days to Death, by J.J. Marric

One of the real joys to be had in writing about crime-fiction cover art is discovering illustrators who, while they may be new to me, are actually classic talents. Take Lou Marchetti, for example.

A year ago, I had never so much as heard Marchetti’s name. Now, I have a large and growing collection of scanned images of the paperbacks that carried his artwork during the latter half of the 20th century. Included are some certifiable eye-catchers, among them the front from the 1958 Pyramid Books edition of Seven Days to Death (shown above), a work originally published in 1956 as Gideon’s Week and attributed to “J.J. Marric,” which was a pseudonym used by renowned English crime writer John Creasey (1908-1973).

According to an online biography penned by his daughter, Louis J. Marchetti was born in 1920 in Fondi, a small city on Italy’s west coast, about halfway between Rome and Naples. As a child, he left Europe (presumably in the company of his parents) and landed safely in New York, where he’s said to have later attended high school on Long Island. Louise Marchetti Zeitlin goes on to state that, after serving with the U.S. Army during World War II, her father “found his way to the Art Students League of New York, where he won two scholarships and studied for several years under renowned artists such as Robert B. Hale, Jean Liberte, Frank McNulty, and Frank Reilly, his mentor.” (Learn more about Reilly’s influence on his students by clicking here.)

After graduating, Marchetti spread his talents around. He introduced his artwork into familiar magazines such as Life, Look, The Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest, and TV Guide, as well as some of the long-ago male-oriented periodicals--O.K. for Men, included. (That’s a nice example of his work on the left.) A portrait he did of actress Marilyn Monroe for the June 1974 issue of True magazine has since been widely distributed and done much to enhance the Monroe legend, though people frequently forget who painted it in the first place.

From the early 1950s through the 1980s, Marchetti created a succession of memorable book jackets for publishers such as Pocket, Ballantine, Fawcett, Avon, Ace, Lancer, Monarch, and Popular Library. “This field, more than any other commercial area,” Zeitlin opines, “allowed him to exhibit the breadth of his creativity.” Marchetti’s illustrations could once be spotted decorating mystery, historical, western, romance, and Gothic novels.

Limiting our scope to his crime-fiction jackets still leaves us looking at a heap of impressive work. He was responsible for painting several of the Monarch covers for the Lou Largo detective novels, including 1960’s Babe in the Woods (which, though credited to William Ard, was actually composed by Lawrence Block.) In addition, Marchetti produced fronts for a few of Ace’s Charlotte Armstrong mysteries, such as The Black-Eyed Stranger (released in 1963). He also delivered the jacket for Pocket Books’ 1956 printing of Two Tickets for Tangier, a suspense thriller by Van Wyck Mason; the 1961 Ace cover of Sing Me a Murder, by Helen Nielsen; the 1960s Perma Books edition of Dolores Hitchens’ Sleep with Strangers; the 1959 Monarch version of Ferguson Findley’s Killer Cop (originally published as My Old Man’s Badge); Ace Books’ 1963 edition of Mrs. Meeker’s Money, by Doris Miles Disney; and the 1959 Ace release of Laine Fisher’s Fare Prey. (Click on any of the images below to open an enlargement.)

Marchetti’s most noteworthy work, though, was often done outside of the crime/mystery field. There are far too many examples to showcase here (besides, I want to save some for future postings), but a few more should suffice to demonstrate the range of his expertise. Below you’ll find the fronts from: the 1959 Cardinal Books edition of Chance Elson, by W.T. Ballard; The Trouble with Ava, by Stuart Friedman (Monarch, 1961); an intentionally titillating 1963 Monarch release called Wild Weekend, by Henry Ellsworth; a 1958 incest novel from Pyramid, The Mustard Seed, by Vicki Baum; the 1957 Pyramid edition of William Rohde’s VIP (originally published as The Heel); Will Newbury’s 1961 Monarch release, Call Boy (“He lived for love and was well paid for it.”); the 1962 paperback, Frenzied, by R. Van Taylor; and the 1960 Pyramid printing of Edward Young’s Hospital Doctor (originally titled The Hippocratic Oath), a book that allegedly exposed “the private world of doctors and their mistresses, nurses and their lovers--an amazing world of heroes and heels who are constantly tempted by pretty faces and a craving for cash.”

Marchetti seemed equally adept in portraying menace, fear, lust, and the magnetic unknown. The men in his illustrations tended to be confident and capable, the women seductive or rebellious but almost always appealing in their proportions. Explains Zeitlin:
Lou almost never painted directly from life. He relied primarily on still photographs, movie stills, and magazine clippings for inspiration, using his unique ability to creatively synthesize a single image from bits and pieces. He rarely used professional models or costumes for his own stills. Instead, he co-opted members of the family to pose with household items and used his artist’s eye and talent to transform the scene. A bedsheet might become a robe, a kitchen spoon a sword.

His years of study at the Art Students League gave Lou a solid understanding of human anatomy which is reflected in the figures he painted. Lou very rarely rendered facial images as they were, rather he created them from his imagination. The faces of the women he painted could be absolutely stunning, prompting people to ask who the model was. The answer was always the same, “I just made her up.”
In the cover he did for Seven Days to Death, Marchetti gives us a hard-jawed and determined George Gideon (aka “G.G.”) of Scotland Yard, all trench-coated, fedora-topped, and set to defend himself from danger. There can be no question, judging from the illustration, that this commander in the Yard’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) has the gumption necessary to do his job. Which is a lucky thing, because the story behind the cover presents Gideon with more than a few risks. Gideon’s Week is the second novel in Marric/Creasey’s series, which eventually ran to more than 20 installments. It finds Gideon trying to protect a woman named Ruby Benson from her cruel and brutal husband, who may have revenge on his mind after she gives him up to the cops.

Gideon’s Week was among the works featured in the 1996 work Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books, by UK crime writer H.R.F. Keating. Keating was especially complimentary of Marric/Creasey’s detailed portrayal of his lead figure, a senior police officer who is shown, “if not warts and all with at least a minor wart or two left. It is a portrait that is probably fairly near the mark for more than a few senior policemen in Britain at any one time, men who are conscientious, tough enough when they have to be--‘there was a hard streak in Gideon; had there not been he would never have reached his position’--not at all intellectual but decidedly shrewd, and, above all, despite the newspapers’ eagerly seized-on stories of corruption and chicanery, decent and honest and determined to get at the truth.”

All of that can certainly be read into Marchetti’s exquisite cover.

Unfortunately, the creator of that jacket is no longer with us. He died in 1992. “In the last decade of this life,” Zeitlin recalls, “the artist retired from active commercial illustration and devoted his time to creating fine art. He primarily painted the countryside and village streets of southern Italy near the place of his birth. During his lifetime his fine art was exhibited in the Grand Central Gallery in New York and in other galleries across the country.”

For my money, however, the foremost displays of Lou Marchetti’s artistic proficiency used to be paperback spinner racks and are presently the crowded shelves of used book stores.

1 comment:

kathy d. said...

The "7 Days to Death" cover is very good.

It reminded me immediately of the covers of the Mike Hammer/Mickey Spillane book covers I saw years ago, and of the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in those days.