I like those classic pulp detective novels. The plots are original (they did come first) and the style is not as gratuitously anatomical as a lot of modern slasher stories. Also there’s the pleasure of the vigorous cover art. But for mystery novels which famously pride themselves on giving fair clues to the reader – how much can you trust the pictures?
Not much going by the many editions there have been of Ellery Queen’s early whodunit The Devil To Pay.
It’s not a particularly good detective story by the way. Queen seems to have worked harder on the romantic sub-plot than the crime itself. It’s his first mystery set in Hollywood and perhaps he was inspired by the Ronald Coleman, Loretta Young and Myrna Loy movie of the same name which had been released just eight years before in 1930
There is no connection at all between the movie and the book, it’s just a very popular title. In fact there had already been two previous movies with the same name, all with different writers and storyline. But this movie poster is a good starting place to get a serendipitous flavor of Queen’s book. Perhaps the first and only time a movie has given a fair representation of a literary theme, and quite by accident.
From the outset the covers of the book have been misleading. The earliest examples show a somewhat reptilian, almost claw-like, hand. In modified forms this illustration has probably been the most common cover used over the years.
Is it the Devil’s hand? Who knows. No such claw-like hand is in the book – the clue EQ writes about is actually a print, found on a dusty table, of what seems a normal hand except it has only two fingers! Two not five. Do illustrators and publishers ever read these books? Not often apparently. This was the first edition of the book. A similar hand reappeared on the 1941 paperback
My favourite cover, for purely artistic reasons, is this 1971 edition showing a Austin Powers-type dollybird holding a rapier. From her blond hair and pet monkey this is a minor character, Winni Moon, the girlfriend of the victim. Without giving too much away the monkey is a red herring. It plays no significant part in the plot (a sadly missed opportunity on EQ’s part). Winni does appear in the same room as the sword at one point but never actually handles it. And though her mini skirt and kinky boots may have helped sell copies they are totally anachronistic for a novel unambiguously set in 1938.
And by1966 the rapier has been replaced by a gun. No one got shot in the making of this book.
Meanwhile in Germany they had to contend with this. Playing cards? Not featured in the story. Statue of the Venus de Milo? No. Twin sisters? No. Twin men in hats with dark glasses? No. Oh, look very closely and spot the five fingered hand in there.
At least the Finns kept it simple – back to that claw.
This is wrong! Not factually, just ethically. This surreal Brazilian cover is a massive spoiler giving away Ellery’s last chapter surprise revelations. They’ve read the book but they don’t understand the concept of mystery. Not much point reading the second half of the book. Look away now.
To be fair the Italians did a respectable job with this 1990’s offering. Ellery really does dress like this (he’s in disguise). Though why change the title to the pedestrian “Hollywood in Confusion”?
But this is a book which is still in print in English. Have things improved? Sadly they’ve got worse. My least favorite cover of all is on a modern edition which has abandoned eye-catching sensationalism in favor of complete dullness. A sepia-tinged illustration of an attaché case full of dollar bills. Yes money is central to the plot but is there any such attaché case stuffed with cash in the book? Nowhere.
We have to wonder at the varied and inconsistent concepts publishers have of their target readership. But what’s obvious is that consistently over the years Ellery Queen’s The Devil To Pay has proved you can’t judge a book by its cover (except of course in Brasil)