Beautiful but deadly femme fatales. Recently fired guns. Ornate artifacts. The covers of mystery books have made these once-exciting images stale. Almost every book in the mystery section at Borders features some image that is intended to fill the potential reader with dread but for me only induces a yawn. The colors used on the covers are even more unimpressive. I know that black and gray are the go-to colors for conjuring up a threatening atmosphere, but must they monopolize all the thriller book covers? Glancing at the shelves in the mystery book section is akin to watching some bizarre Calvin Klein commercial in which the underfed actors are replaced with books.
So imagine my delight at seeing the cover of Steig Larsson’s best-selling thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The most striking aspect of the book jacket is its color. You know that scene in “Wizard of Oz” where Dorothy, having lived in a black-and-white Kansas all her life, steps out of her farmhouse and into the Technicolor beauty of Munchkinland? I empathized with her surprise when I first saw Girl at a bookstore. It is colored with a yellowish-green that makes it seem out of place in the mystery section. This uncharacteristic color is its greatest strength. Surrounded by other mystery books that are saturated with darker shades, this book grabs the attention of those moving their eyes along the shelves.
The yellow that fills up most of the book jacket is so arresting that it infuses the font used to display the title with a menace not found in other mystery book titles. The font is black, bold, and all in capitals, so it wins no points for originality. But its juxtaposition with the rest of the jacket’s radiance is striking—and a little unsettling. The surrounding yellow makes the shade of black look darker than normal. One could infer from this color relationship that there will be dark and murderous deeds occurring in the daylight, a situation that is always unexpected and eerie.
The rest of the jacket is beautiful to look at, but neither the cover design nor the font used to display the title carry the same uniqueness that characterizes the cover’s dominant color. A detailed, Asian-inspired drawing of a fearsome dragon fills up the cover (astute readers may notice that this is the dragon tattoo mentioned in the title). It’s a wonderful drawing and looks as though it was designed by a master craftsmen instead of some artist hired by the publishing house. But images from Asian lore have been used before; see any of Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichiro mysteries as an example.
Overall, the singular color scheme of the book jacket overshadows the derivativeness of the dragon drawing, making the cover look incredibly fresh. I would expect that the pronounced image of the dragon tattoo on the cover translates into a unique thriller that is either set in the Asian underworld or contains significant references to Asian mythology and folklore. I would also infer that this thriller is not oppressively grim, though it will contain some macabre elements, just as the radiant yellow cover is peppered with those pitch-black words. Most of all, the distinctiveness of the cover implies that the contents of this book will be wholly original, an adjective that is being put to rare use when discussing so many other books in the mystery genre.