Crime By Design – 1: The Marber Grid

This is the first in a series exploring the best design in crime and detective novels, starting with an absolute icon, the Marber Grid.

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As an artist myself and being married to a graphic designer I am always drawn to a book by its cover, and classic crime is no exception. The green hue of the vintage penguin crime paperback always brings a joy to the heart. But one format in particular stands apart as being one of the most influential and beautiful layout designs of all time.

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The Marber Grid and a Chestertonian example

The Marber grid was designed by Romek Marber in 1961, after Penguin Art Director Germano Facetti commissioned three designers to devise a new grid system to allow for illustrations alongside the bold typography associated with Penguin covers. Marber’s grid was chosen and he went on to illustrate around 70 titles for the Penguin Crime series. Marber retained the classic penguin green but significantly lightened the shade. The text was cropped at the top, which allowed for a broad section of two thirds of the cover to be used for illustration, something which hadn’t been done before across the Penguin brand.

The designs were provocative and eye catching and even a little unnerving to some, as Phil Banes writes in his book Penguin by Design: ‘The imagery used in the area below was often suggestive rather than literal, but even so, there was some adverse feedback about the ‘darkness’ of some of the images.’

These news covers, with striking imagery at an affordable cost brought high quality art and design into everyone’s home. These illustrations perfectly capture some element of the story or characters, as with one of my favourite designs, the covers for the Father Brown series, which show perfectly how Brown reaches his solutions through intuition and and meditative thinking, rather than through scientific or straight deduction. The design is so classic that in even more contemporary re-releases of Brown this same illustration concept has been retained.

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The classic brown cover and a more modern retake

It was later decided that recurring series works should have a recognisable recurring image, as with the covers for Dorothy L Sayers releases, which contained a hand cut white figure placed somewhere on each design.

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The Marber grid continued from here to influence every part of Penguins design output, as The Book Design Blog writes: ‘Facetti was so inspired by Marber’s design that he also used it for Penguin’s fiction range, and would later apply it again, practically unchanged, to the blue Pelican books. Eventually Marber’s layout became the standard layout for the entire range of Penguin paperbacks.’

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Marber’s own story is a fascinating one. Born in Poland in 1925, he escaped the Nazi death camps with the help of Sergeant Kurzbach, who helped saved large numbers of Jew’s during WWII. Arriving in Britain in 1946 he enrolled at St Martin’s school of art (a member now of the UAL group of universities, where I also currently study), to study commercial art. He then went on to attend the Royal College of Art in 1953. Marber then designed a number of covers for the economist. These bold typographic designs were noticed by Germano Facetti who then asked him to work on some Penguin titles, which lead to the commission of the Marber Grid.

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Marber is still alive and retired from the design world, holding a place as Professor Emeritus with Middlesex University. Designers today still look back to this iconic grid and its influence on cover design the world over. I think it’s also helpful in our current climate to think that a Polish immigrant to the UK who lived through Nazi occupation, changed the face of crime and book cover design the world over.

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Francis Duncan: So Pretty A Problem (1950)

A sharp sound wakes Mordecai Tremaine from his deck chair dozing. Helen Carthallow runs from her secluded house to the beach side, finding Tremaine she cries out: ‘Please. Come Quickly. Please. I’ve killed my husband.’

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The now deceased Adrian Carthallow lies in a horrible state in the middle of his study come library. Adrian was the controversial painter of the day, his revealing portraits and horrific landscapes, while being classed as genius, stirred up many a critic and enemy.

Helen claims the shooting was a joke gone wrong, she didn’t realise the gun was loaded. But the scene and her account paint an odd picture. However, if she didn’t kill Adrian then it paints an odder picture still, as the house known as Paradise sits on a small piece of cliff top broken away from the mainland, only accessible by a small iron bridge. The house and bridge were watched by a rock solid witness, and no one else but Adrian, Helen and Tremaine crossed over around the time the gun was fired. How then could a killer enter and leave Paradise unseen?

I was introduced to Duncan’s works by TomCat in his recent reviews  and was fortunate to come across this one on my London second hand bookshop walk. So Pretty a Problem is one of a series of five classic detective novels from the 1950’s penned by Francis Duncan and reissued by Penguin last year under their Vintage label. It’s also the impossible crime of the series so of course I jumped at it. Set in the coastal town of Falporth, Duncan’s series detective the retired tobacconist, hopelessly old school romantic and amateur criminologist, Mordecai Tremaine is trying to take a holiday with no murder involved. Alas, he is struck with the impossible problem, and his reputation for solving crimes precedes him, as he is enlisted by the local police force to help break down the complexities of motive, means and opportunity that muddy the case.

The book is divided into three distinct acts: Part one Query: At the Time of the Corpse, dives in with the impossible situation and introduces our cast. Part 2 Background: Before the Corpse then takes us back in time to Tremaine’s first encounter with Adrian and Helen Carthallow at a party and onto the subsequent meetings of each of our motley crew of suspects with all the bubbling tensions between them. Part 2 ends bang up to date as the gun is fired, taking us into part three Exposition: Following the Corpse. A really interesting way to approach a detective novel and one that I hadn’t seen done before, (I’d love to hear of more examples from readers), but one that ultimately makes this book a difficult read, as I will expand on in just a moment.

Another strength is how many strands Duncan manages to hold together around this murder. The impossible solution isn’t super original or exciting, although plausible (and as TomCat noted there are some very late clues), but the psychological manipulations and subsequent confusion of motives, particularly on Helen’s account, are really interesting and how they weave into the final solution is super satisfying. The denouement itself shows off Duncan’s plotting ability, and the pace of the reveal was one I wish he would have kept up through the rest of the book, which brings me too…

The criticisms, and unfortunately there are a few. Firstly, there is what I would call the definitive problem in any type of writing, but that poor detective stories particularly fall foul of: telling not showing. For Francis this occurs very often and in a particularly unfortunate way. Take this passage from part one for example, with Helen as the main dialogue, emphasis mine:

“…you’re quite sure he didn’t kill himself?”

“Of course,” she said. Her voice rose, There was a shrillness in it. “Of course. I’ve told you how it happened. I’ve told the police. I shot him. Adrian gave me his gun and I pointed it at him and fired. That’s what he told me to do. He must have forgotten it was loaded…”

She broke off suddenly. She stared up at Haldean and there was in her face the incredulous look of a person who had just become aware of a new and altogether unexpected possibility.

“You mean,” she whispered, “you mean that perhaps he hadn’t forgotten? That he wanted me to kill him?”

Haldean did not make any comment. Roberta Fairham was leaning forward in her chair, her lips slightly parted. It was as though she was desperately anxious not to miss what Helen Carthallow might be going to say.

Duncan continually does this, shows us a change in mood or character, and then tells us that is what we have just seen, or that is what we are supposed to notice. In this passage the suggestion of suicide is there from the off, and then Helen breaks her sentence, clearly in realisation. But then Duncan tells us ‘she has just broken off her sentence in realisation and her face has the expression of said realisation’. And then with Roberta, leaning forward on the edge of her chair, with lips parted – clearly from that description of her posture and face, waiting to hear what Helen is going to say next – Duncan tells us that she is waiting to hear what Helen will say next.

This may sound like a subtle observation but after this happens between almost every line of dialogue it makes you want to throw the book across the room, and breaks the natural flow of the narrative. It felt that he was writing from a place of anxiety, as if he was worried the audience may not get the characters or remember the clues. This therefore undermines the intelligence of the reader. What this book needed was a good editor, to bring the confidence of part 3 to the rest of the book.

Leading on from this is the frustrating use of the three part structure. This could have been so brilliant, original and striking, but for similar writing problems, it isn’t. Part two, taking us back into the past, ends up lasting over 100 pages and is just pleasant writing with very little in terms of events. There is one deliciously dark moment involving the cast surfboarding together, which Duncan then ruins by literally writing ‘Had it been an accident?’ again telling you what is obviously the whole point of the scene. If part two could have been cut down by 70 pages, gotten straight to the point with the bubbling tensions (with some actual tensions) and then dived into act three, it would have been immensely satisfying. But as it is I was forced to drag myself through the section at a snail’s pace, a section which also contains absolutely no detection of any kind.

So Pretty a Problem is worth a go for the joys it holds, but be prepared for it to drag. I would love to see an experiment taken up for someone to read only parts one and three, and to see if it actually made any difference to the book.

Twain, Hemmingway, Dickens: Crime Writers?

Sometimes I come across a book so curious I have to pick it up. Ellery Queen’s Book of Mystery Stories is just that book. Its very existence is so fascinating I had to write about it.

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Most followers of this blog will know who Ellery Queen is, but if not let me introduce you. Ellery Queen was the moniker of crime fiction writers, editors and anthologists Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. They wrote some 30 novels and short story collections featuring their main character, also named Ellery Queen, a writer and amateur detective who helps his police inspector father solve complex cases. They also had a huge impact on editing and anthologising crime.

This anthology originally published in 1952 under the title ‘The Literature of Crime’ seeks to show, in Queen’s words, that ‘few people realise – few critics, too – that nearly every world-famous author, throughout the entire history of literature has tried his hand at writing the detective or crime story’.

And the list of names in this book is extraordinary. Queen brings together short crime stories from none other than Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling, Aldous Huxley, Pearl S. Buck, Walter de la Mare, Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck and Fannie Hurst to name but a few.

What made me pick it up, was the foreword by Queen, in which there are some fascinating facts. For example in discussing Mark Twain Queen says ‘Twain’s writings in the detective-crime field are almost wholly unappreciated’ explaining that Twain wrote over 6 detective stories through his career, and that he was ‘the first writer in history to see the plot possibilities of fingerprints… Yes, both in the short story and the novel… as a means of criminal identification.’ And in Huckleberry Finn, often ranked as one of the top 100 books of all time, Twain wrote in the lady detective Mrs Judith Loftus, who uses the gender norms of the time as to uncovering Finn’s disguise. 

And most fascinatingly: ‘did you know what was book Mark Twain was writing at the time of his death? A mystery novel, entitled Jim Wheeler, Detective.’ Truly wonderful stuff. The unfinished Jim Wheeler manuscript is housed in the New York Public library having never been published, but I guess it would be a frustrating read having no ending.
What I find interesting about this collection is that it shows the complexities of the crime form were not snubbed by some of the world’s most famous authors.