05 February 2012

A Millar Mystery and the Art of Deception

Following last Wednesday's post on Margaret Millar's An Air that Kills:

One man dies in this novel; here's how the discovery of his body is described:
Two barges, sent down from Meaford with winches and dredging equipment, located the car in twenty feet of water just below the cliff where Lehman had found the tire tracks. The car was barely damaged. the windows and windshield were unbroken and Ron Galloway was still inside, fastened snugly to the driver's seat by his safety belt.
So, who's that above on the cover of the 1985 International Polygonics edition?

The 2000 British edition from Allison & Busby (again, no relation), does the reader a similar disservice by falling back on that tired cliché of the clutching hand.

Who exactly is drowning here? It can't be poor Ron Galloway, who enters the drink in a comatose state, courtesy of best friend and pill pushing pharmaceutical salesman Harry Bream.

Though Ron's staged suicide by car crash is a key event, it's never described by Millar. We learn of the tragedy many days after the fact when tire tracks leading off the edge of a cliff are discovered. The author makes much of the fact that Ron was behind the wheel of a submerged Cadillac convertible when he died, yet all German editions feature an image of a sedan that has hit a wall.

It's understandable that readers of Die Süßholzraspler might expect someone at some point to drive into a wall, just as folks with the International Polygonics edition would've been keeping an eye out for a floating body. I expect those who read the Allison & Busby edition braced themselves for Mrs Millar's description of a struggling, drowning man.

Readers of the 1976 Penguin edition may have found some satisfaction; the cross-scarred wrists depicted on the cover feature in the novel, appearing fleetingly on page 243 of the 247-page book.

They're of no importance to the plot.

Forget those covers – they're bland and boring. The best, the steamiest, the sexiest is the 1960 Bantam edition:

It too has problems. The flying Caddie is great, but that can't be fair-haired, chunky Thelma Bream. And while its true that An Air that Kills is a "novel of subtle evil", it's not until the final chapter that the hidden "savage lust for revenge" is revealed. Consider that a spoiler.

Four years later, unmourned publisher Lancer got Thelma's hair right, but little else. While acknowledging that this ugly edition was published when Twiggy was at her height, I must ask: Can the femme fatale in blue bra be considered plump?

Or am I being just too damn picky?

The least colourful cover I've yet to find comes from Tokyo publisher Sogensha. It's also the most accurate. The small lake on its cover could very well be located outside Meaford, Ontario; I see nothing to indicate otherwise, except for the fact that the area is blessed with some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet. This doesn't do it justice:

The most beautiful feature on the cover belong's to A.E. Housman, who provided the novel's epigraph:
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those? 
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
Published in 1995, Sogensha's is the fourth – yes, fourth – Japanese edition. We Canadians are still awaiting our first.


  1. I used to have mini tirades as a teen when the cover wasn't true to the story or did the unthinkable - ruined something meant to be a surprise in the final pages. Dell paperback editions from the 1970s of Murder at Hazelmoor by Agatha Christie (The Sittaford Mystery in the UK and Canada) did just that when they pictured... well, something they shouldn't have. And did it in three different versions! Sometimes the artists read the book and go too far, but often they seem never to care about depicting the events or characters accurately as in most of your examples above.

  2. My fave is the 50's edition of HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES with a whip-wielding psycho on the cover.

  3. Very amusing but probably not for the reader expecting something that never happens. I look at Megan's latest book and it has a girl swimming. That scene never took place in the book if I remember it correctly but I guess it references a girl and summer and being out of her depth.

  4. John, I know just what you're talking about with the Christie! Definitely a huge spoiler for anyone paying attention.

    I have to admit that I read this Millar--which is very good--without giving any thought to the cover illustration! Generally IPL does very good jobs. As I recollect their illustration for Millar's Spider Webs had a man who looks a good bit like O. J. Simpson and the plot was somewhat similar to his murder case. Kind of eerie, considering this was all before those events occurred!

  5. John, mysteries being mysteries, one would think that publishers would take particular care that covers not give anything away. Then you have the images of characters not featured in the book, which lends the impression that things will become clearer once they show up - which, of course, they don't!

    Tim, The Hound of the Baskervilles with whip-wielding psycho? I tried my best, but couldn't find an image on the web. Would you remember the publisher?

    Patti, I expect you're right... 'tis symbolic.

    TPT, As much as I appreciate IPL, I've never cared much for their cover illustrations. The only one of their books I own is Millar's Fire Will Freeze, which also features a cover that depicts a scene not found in the actual. Must say I agree about that cover of Spider Webs. Eerie is right.