Cover Art: Two Novels by Joseph Wambaugh
I’ve never blogged about cover art before, partly because I don’t know much about the subject, but I enjoy blogs such as Killer Covers and John D MacDonald Covers so much that I thought I would give it a try. Joseph Wambaugh is, in my opinion, one of the finest American crime writers working today, and over the years I have been impressed and intrigued by the cover art featured on his books, especially his books which have wrap-around cover art. In this post I’m going to briefly discuss the cover art on two books written by Wambaugh: Lines and Shadows (1984) and The Secrets of Harry Bright (1985). The artist is not credited in either edition I have selected, so if you happen to know who it is please get in touch via the comment thread.
Lines and Shadows is one of Wambaugh’s works of non-fiction, or the ‘non-fiction novel’ to quote the term coined by Wambaugh’s mentor Truman Capote. It follows the Border Crime Task Force of the San Diego Police Department from 1976 to 1978. The writing is at its sharpest when focused on the personal lives of the policemen or discussing the politics behind their assignment. The drawbacks of books of this kind, however, is that the writer is hostage to facts, which does not always lead to the strongest narrative. For this reason, the book drags, and the story never feels quite as interesting as it should be.
The front cover of this book is not outstanding: just a small image set against a black backdrop. But when you open the book, the excitement begins with a cast of characters crammed into an intriguing collage: there’s a hero on a motorbike, beautiful women, a boisterous gangster-type, a grizzled hardboiled looking man smoking a cigarette and lots of gunplay. It reminds me a little of the posters of Bruce Lee films or some of the James Bond films of the 1970s where a lot of the action set-pieces of the film were crammed into small images on the poster. They could be a bit too busy at times but certainly conveyed the sense of an epic, exciting story.
The Secrets of Harry Bright was a return to fiction for Wambaugh and is a wonderfully absurdist mixture of black comedy, tragedy and mystery set in the fictional Mineral Springs, California. I’ve written a full-length review of the novel here. This cover image is wonderfully minimalist. I like the way the reds and oranges convey the blinding, oppressive heat of the Sonoran desert. Unlike Lines and Shadows, in which the inside pages extend the cover art, for The Secrets of Harry Bright, the style is completely different. We’re back to the action-packed images, which is odd, as it is not a novel that relies on much action. The car explosion, if I remember correctly, belongs to the back-story. The inside cover art seems to reassure the reader that you’re still in a Wambaugh story, even if the promises of action made by the artist aren’t delivered in the story.