Thrillers get green light again

They would certainly look impressive as a set of ten on bookshelves, all with the iconic green hue that is the centrepiece of their new covers, and it should be a strong bet that buyers are in for some thumping good reads too – the titles being brought back by Penguin Modern Classics in its new Crime and Espionage series.
20. August 2023 6:53

The Budapest Times looked at five of the ten — “Beast in the Shadows” by Edogawa Rampo (1928), “Journey into Fear” by Eric Ambler (1940), “In a Lonely Place” by Dorothy B. Hughes (1947), “The Franchise Affair“ by Josephine Tey (1948) and “The Drowning Pool“ by Ross Macdonald (1950) – in its recent article “Murder, treachery for the ages” – and now here are the other five — “The Night of the Hunter“ by Davis Grubb (1953), “Maigret and the Headless Corpse“ by Georges Simenon (1955), “Call for the Dead“ by John le Carré (1961), “Cotton Comes to Harlem” by Chester Himes (1965) and “SS-GB” by Len Deighton (1978).

When publisher Penguin relaunched the books this month, one design feature just had to be kept. For Penguin readers, crime is synonymous with green. The colour has been a staple of the publishers’ crime jackets for the best part of a century, and the new editions pay tribute to this signature style. Also, the latest use of typography, collage and texture have been chosen to give subtle nods to the genre

Green and white for crime novels was just one of the colour combinations settled upon when Penguin Books launched in 1935. (Others were orange and white for general fiction, cerise and white for travel and adventure, dark blue and white for biographies, yellow and white for miscellaneous, red and white for drama, purple and white for essays and ‘”belles lettres”, grey and white for world affairs.)

The green used back then was a deep shade but it has changed over the years, plus, inevitably, while the rather stark covers achieved a great recognition of their own, changing times saw the introduction of illustrative artwork half a century ago. Anyway, the important thing is the stories themselves, and the ten in the crime and espionage series are considered modern classics, mostly from the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. They’re not brand-new 2023 crime fiction, and so the latest designs are a deliberate nod to the past, in particular to Penguin’s rich design history of being bold, graphic and unmistakable.

The series includes “The Night of the Hunter“ by American author Davis Grubb (1919-1980), better known though as a 1955 film starring Robert Mitchum and directed by Charles Laughton. The novel came two years earlier and is based on the true case of serial killer Harry Powers, a psychopath who preyed on and murdered two widows and three children in Quiet Dell, West Virginia, United States. He was hanged in 1932.

Certain opinion holds that the book has been unjustly overshadowed by its cinematic counterpart. American writer Julia Keller called Grubb’s novel a “lost masterpiece”, and others agree. It is considered a chilling, unforgettable tale of crime and evil set in the background of a Depression-hit community on a riverbank.

Grubb’s rendering is described as suspenseful and thrilling, with great characterisations and an eerie atmosphere. Enigmatic, claustrophobic and suspenseful, it is a southern noir classic that may yet come to greater visibility and recognition.

“Maigret and the Headless Corpse“ by Georges Simenon is the 47th of the 75 novels, translated from the original “Maigret et le corps sans tête” published in 1955 and written while the Belgian author was living at Shadow Rock Farm, Lakeville, Connecticut, US. It’s often ranked among the best of the series about the Paris detective at the Police Judiciaire.

One reason given is that the characterisations and ambience are consistently delivered, as are Maigret’s moods — “When a case proves complicated and the problem appears  impossible to solve, everyone at headquarters, starting with  Mairgret, becomes surly and  impatient. Conversely,  if a case which has seemed difficult at first turns out to be  straightforward and trivial, the same men, including Maigret,  are unable to conceal their disappointment.”

The background is as important as the plot, and while this crime gets solved, they never did find the missing head.

“Call for the Dead“ is the first book in the notable literary career of English author John le Carré (born David John Moore Cornwell, 1931-2020), published in 1961 and filmed as “The Deadly Affair” in 1966). More a detective story than a spy story, it introduced the shrewd but self-effacing intelligence agent George Smiley, who became le Carré’s best-known character and was featured in several later works.

The opening chapter titled “A Brief History of George Smiley” introduces his legendary spy and immediately ensnares the reader in the shadowy world he inhabits. Pulled back from overseas duty during World War II, the unassuming chap is redirected to face the threats of the Cold War, launching the life of one of the most memorable and singular fictional characters of the twentieth century.

British author Len Deighton was born in 1929 and is the only one of the 10 who is still with us, aged 94 years. His 1978 novel “SS-GB” portrays what might have happened if World War II had gone the other way and Germany won. In this alternative history he imagines a chilling world where Briain surrendered to the Nazis in 1941, Churchill was shot, the King is in a dungeon and the SS, the Schutzstaffel, or “Protective Echelon”, schooled in racial hatred and with hearts hardened to human suffering, are in Whitehall.

“Cotton Comes to Harlem” is a welcome to the world of Chester Himes, circa 1965 when this book was published: “The city lived and breathed and slept as normal. People were lying, stealing, cheating, murdering; people were praying, singing, laughing, loving and being loved; and people were being born and people were dying. Its pulse remained the same. New York City. The Big Town.”

Well, it’s just another day up there at the northern end of Manhattan. It’s only 10pm but look at the police reports: Man kills his wife with an axe for burning his breakfast pork chop … man shoots another man demonstrating a recent shooting he had witnessed… man stabs another man for spilling beer on his new suit… man kills self in a bar playing Russian roulette with a .32 revolver… woman stabs man in stomach fourteen times, no reason given… woman scalds neighbouring woman with pot of boiling water for speaking to her husband… man arrested for threatening to blow up subway train because he entered wrong station and couldn’t get his token back…

No wonder a suspect is taking a battering from two African-American cops, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger, under the bright lights in the basement interview room at police headquarters.  “They slapped him back and forth until his brains were addled, but left no bruises.”

Read our original review of “Cotton Comes to Harlem

Read “Murder treachery for the ages

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