Verne Tossey’s 1954 cover for The Crooked City.
My Kirkus Reviews column this week is devoted to a look back at Irish crime writer J.B. (James Brendan) O’Sullivan’s 1953 novel, I Die Possessed, one of his more than a dozen works starring one-lunged boxer-turned-New York private eye Steve Silk. It’s an odd little story of 196 pages. The basic plot--about the murder of a daily newspaper columnist who’d been blackmailing people with information he discovered in the course of his job--is nothing terribly remarkable. But the fact that the whole yarn is told from the viewpoint of the dead man certainly sets this book apart from other mysteries and thrillers penned during the Eisenhower era. (You’ll find my write-up about I Die Possessed here.)
What also makes I Die Possessed distinctive, however, is its cover, on which the painting of a man and a woman in the apparent throes of passion is framed within the outline of a pistol ... while the negative image of a man’s face is seen in the background. As I say in the Kirkus piece, that cover is haunting. It’s not that the idea of framing an image inside a gun is remarkable; it’s not. What’s powerful here is the suggestive combination of passion, pistol, and threatening spectral onlooker. Tie that in with the cover line--“A jealous cop, a wealthy widow, and MURDER!”--and it must have been pretty difficult for men browsing spinners racks in the 1950s to not at least snatch up Sullivan’s Pocket Books paperback for closer study.
The artist here was Verne (or Vern) Tossey, who illustrated magazine fronts as well as book jackets. According to Steve Brower’s 2010 work, Breathless Homicidal Slime Mutants: The Art of the Paperback,
Tossey was born in 1920 in Detroit, Michigan. He studied at the Art Students League in New York under Frank J. Reilly. Known for his Western and historical rugged realism, he married a rancher’s daughter. Tossey worked in oils, poster paint and tempera. He died in 2002.In addition to his work on I Die Possessed, Tossey created the fronts for books by Robert Kyle, Erle Stanley Gardner, Jack Webb, George Harmon Coxe, Stanley Ellin, and many other authors. I’m embedding a number of covers credited to him below.
Click on any of these images for an enlargement.