Judging the Book By Its Cover is a column where we, you guessed it, judge books by their covers. Or more accurately, we judge the covers of books, examining the different aesthetics they’ve had through the years (and in some cases titles) to determine which are the most and least effective.
Even in crime lit, few authors are as stylish as James Ellroy. As the figurehead of modern LA noir, Ellroy is widely celebrated for his machine gun prose (just try to find an essay on Ellroy that doesn’t involve machine gun imagery of some sort) and his ability to bring LA’s violent history to vivid life. But you wouldn’t know that from looking at the covers for most of his books.
Where Ellroy’s writing is punchy, sharp, unpredictable, the covers of his books are frequently flat and unaffecting, or garish and laughable. It’s not that these covers fall under the expected style of disposable mass market paperback crime lit, either (though a few of Ellroy’s books occasionally do get this treatment). Instead it seems that most designers who are assigned Ellroy novels simply do not know how to work with such an expressive and iconic writer.
Ellroy’s masterpiece, White Jazz, is perhaps the biggest victim of this. White Jazz stands out even amongst Ellroy’s work, a distinctly stream-of-consciousness twist on the Quartet’s prior entries that features as much William S. Burroughs DNA as it does Dashiell Hammett. And yet the cover of its first edition is almost overpowering in stark minimalism:
Granted, that’s by design. Created by famed book designer Chip Kidd– who is normally as recognizable for his use of color as for how he utilizes mixed media– this original cover of White Jazz emphasizes the fatalism and sense of futility running through all of The LA Quartet. Though I personally think these themes Kidd’s design references are the least notable elements of the book, Ellroy himself singled out the cover’s use of white, stating it’s “a color at once stark, innocent and inviting,” and that by using it to frame an image as menacing a bullet-ridden LAPD door the cover gives the reader “a statement and a challenge– forceful, simple, elegant.”
But White Jazz is not a simple or elegant book. Much of the potency of White Jazz comes from the perpetual sense of vertigo it instills in readers as they try to follow the bebop prose and protagonist Dave Klein’s navigation of LA’s darkest corners. So when Kidd revisited the book for its current edition, he made it more tactile and also more disorienting, wielding a ransom note aesthetic to prepare readers for the collage approach of the book and its stream of consciousness delivery:
The color white is still used as a stark element, but it has more impact here when set against a barrage of other colors, including two off-whites. Pure white is restricted to just the title of the book, forcing your eye to land on it after it has taken in the other elements. The cover is also artfully cluttered, the newsprint clips of Ellroy’s name set on top of an out of focus city lights shot, bluntly divided from the crime scene photo that also competes for focus. Though Kidd used this cluttered aesthetic for all of his new designs for Ellroy’s books at Vintage, it fits White Jazz best, functioning as a parallel for the multiple perspectives Klein must yield throughout the novel.
That cluttering is a hard trick to pull off effectively, which is clear when you look at Penguin’s UK cover for White Jazz, a hideous mess of purple and stock photo cutouts:
Between the footer image that tries to emphasize the “jazz” element of the name in the clumsiest possible way, the liquid metal gradient in the type and the random insertions of letters and cliche mob types in the background, this cover is an assault on the senses. Even though it’s using some of Kidd’s tricks, this cover has none of the thoughtful layering and eye for detail. It’s just a random assortment of things the designer associated with the name white jazz and James Ellroy’s reputation.
But at least it’s more interesting than the standardly dull “here’s a crime novel” style of the Ballantine cover:
It’s particularly odd that the Ballantine cover is done in the style modern publishers have used to promote classic noir like Raymond Chandler, since Ellroy not only symbolizes a significant shift away from that type of crime writing but he views the Chandlers of the world as “egregiously overrated.” You would expect a writer with this kind of kill yr idols mentality to attract designers with similar approaches, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with Ellroy. Perhaps that’s because the genre he writes in isn’t usually considered stylish unless it’s getting a film or tv adaptation. Or perhaps it’s because Ellroy’s style is so iconic and noticeable it’s intimidating to designers, and they revert to staying out of the way.
Whatever the case, Ellroy is overdue for some fresh design blood, work that can match his intensity and revolutionary spirit and provide better hints of the horror and terror lurking within the pages of his novels. After all, as much as Ellroy is associated with throwback beat style, the dominant theme of his novels is the evil men do in the pursuit of power, and that subject is now as topical as it’s ever been.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover