Monday, September 20, 2010

Please Turn Your Back

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been busy disassembling, cleaning, and reorganizing my home office-cum-library. Since there are thousands of books on the shelves in that room, some of which I am relocating to bookcases elsewhere in the house, this has proved to be a major, back-straining enterprise. But it’s also been rather enjoyable, as it has reintroduced me to some works I forgot I owned, and that I would like to read again. Books such as Hiber Conteris’ Philip Marlowe novel, Ten Percent of Life (1985), Robert J. Randisi’s first Miles Jacoby private-eye story, Eye in the Ring (1992), and Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Casebook of Sidney Zoom (2006).

Also among the treasures, I found (inconveniently stacked behind other works) three dozen books in Dell Publishing’s old Murder Ink/Scene of the Crime series of paperback whodunits. During the early 1980s, Dell hired two renowned bookshop proprietors--Carol Brener of New York City’s Murder Ink and Ruth Windfeldt of Scene of the Crime in Sherman Oaks, California--as consultants charged with putting together a line of “the finest in mystery fiction.” I can’t seem to locate a checklist of this series anywhere on the Web, but I know it featured more than 60 titles, by authors both illustrious and less familiar to American readers. Among those represented (sometimes by more than one novel) were Hugh Pentecost, Gladys Mitchell, Mignon Warner, Jonathan Gash, Leslie Thomas, and Robert Barnard. The books--many of them reprints--where issued alternately between Murder Ink selections and Scene of the Crime picks.

Among the most interesting elements of that series were its original painted covers. From the inaugural entry, Sheila Radley’s Death in the Morning (first published in 1978), through its 28th, Alan Hunter’s Gently with the Innocents (1970), the book fronts were primarily white, but also featured puzzle pieces that--if you took any time at all to notice--fit neatly into fuller illustrations on the backsides of the books. So you had to flip each volume over not only to read the plot précis, but to appreciate the complete artwork. (This wasn’t the same as Dell’s much older line of “map back editions,” which offered regular fronts, but also special crime-scene layouts on the back.)

Bookstores might have been disappointed with this format, because when faced out on shelves, entries in the Murder Ink/Scene of the Crime paperback line resembled each other all too closely. However, some of the back-cover illustrations were quite eye-catching, if uncredited. (You’d think that if a publishing house went to all the trouble and expense of commissioning unique artwork, it would tell readers who had created it, wouldn’t you? Well, not in Dell’s case.) Among my favorite examples is the “gorgeous blonde stripper” illustration on the back of Michael Allen’s Spence at the Blue Bazaar (1979), one of his three novels featuring Detective Chief Superintendent Ben Spence. I’ve embedded both the front and the rear of that “Scene of the Crime Mystery” at the top of this post.

A change was finally made, starting with the release of No. 29 in this series, Colin Watson’s 1958 novel, Coffin Scarcely Used (shown on the left). Rather than the majority of each illustration being relegated to the back, it was suddenly moved to the more traditional front of each novel, with the puzzle pieces dispatched instead to the obverse façade. This rearrangement probably made smart business sense, since the faced-out books were now better distinguished from each other on store shelves. But for curiosity-seekers like me who had enjoyed the novelty of this line’s design, it was a disappointing surrender to conformity.

For readers who’ve never seen Dell’s Mystery Ink/Scene of the Crime series, and for others who would just like to be reminded of its virtues, I am installing nine more early books from the series--fronts and backs--below. Click on the images for enlargements.

Assistance requested: If you know where to find a checklist of the Murder Ink/Scene of the Crime mystery series, please drop a note into the Comments section below.

1 comment:

neer said...

Thanks for this post. Recently I read Watson's Choice and was wondering about the series. Your post proved to be most informative.