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A Girl in Trouble is a Con/temporary Thing: Women on Mysteries

A while ago, I posted something on the Women of Esoterica blog about the imagery of 1960s era gothic genre mystery book covers. There is a standard template: A woman in a nightgown is fleeing a large, isolated, creepy mansion, in which a single window is illuminated. In the foreground, there are usually some ruins or rocks blocking her path, indicating she is trapped. There are many variations and interpretations of this as well. Here is part of the blog post I wrote before:

Even with the ones that strayed from this exact cookie-cutter template, the covers still contained the elements of such.

With some covers, a woman may not be fleeing in a nightgown, but confidently poised in evening wear outside a large house. If there is no light in a window, there is a huge full moon as light source, or she may be carrying a candle. But, there are almost always the 3 elements of house, light, woman. Sometimes men are present, and sometimes the scene even takes place indoors, or immediately in front of the house. In these last two cases, the woman is usually in dire straits, either being attacked, or slumped over, post attack.

I suppose it's a rather straightforward and easy reading: women being oppressed somehow by a man. But maybe more thoughtfully, as we see with the art, by a huge, looming, antiquated house. This carries obvious ideas that were at the forefront in the 60s--women getting out of their houses and into the working world. There are also ideas of family life here, and probably can be seen to symbolize all the dynamics and changes that were going on regarding motherhood, birth control, divorce, etc. The ubiquitous single light source in the scene can be seen both emphasize that something drastic has taken place, and to light a path.

If this is the case, what can we extrapolate from contemporary mystery genre book covers about our so-called "post-feminist" era? I recently bought a copy of the British mystery-lit magazine, The Strand Magazine; in it is a previously unpublished Mark Twain short story that I couldn't wait to read. Browsing the magazine, which of course contains many ads for new mystery fiction, I noticed some things about the covers.

There seems to be no trace of the 'woman, light, house' dynamic of previous decades. Of course, the gothic mystery genre is not as common now. But, most of the covers did have at least one thing in common; they featured the heroine as attractive, sexy, in a strong stance, but 'cut off' or incomplete somehow. Commonly, her head is cut off, and all that can be seen are the lips. In some cases, one entire side of the face is missing, in shadow. Shadow is also frequently used with a whole female figure, as a silhouette.

Looking through every ad for books in the magazine, I realized that every cover on which an 'attractive' female was present, her face or body was in one way or another obscured. The exceptions to this--the covers which featured entire, complete female bodies—depicted the women as 'unattractive' or plain, large, and in exaggerated poses and eccentric clothing. Also, some of the fully-depicted images are literally caricatures: there were several cartoonish or avatar-style renderings, and even a transvestite. So, there seem to be two types of bodily representation: caricatures and fractured. In considering the entire effect or meaning of all this, it seems there's a sense of near-realization, a coming close to full representation, but just not quite there. What does it mean?

Of course, this can be viewed in several ways. In keeping with my previous critique of the 60s era gothic mysteries, in which the scene fairly shows a contemporary woman's social predicament and angst-filled role of the times, the current mystery covers could also be seen as a frustration of sorts. As an example, the last presidential election may embody the general sense of it—looking at it simply in terms of gender--women came quite close to becoming our president, and our vice president.

There are huge considerations of how women's interests would actually have been served had one of those candidates been victorious, but again, looking at it purely from the gender/power/presence angle, there's a sense of frustrated, approximate realization.

Could this "commentary" the covers display have something to do with the mystery genre itself? It seems to be the Trickster of the fiction world. In the stories, things are rarely as they seem, there are themes of cloaked identities, impersonations and imposters, all manner of deceptions, twists, reversals, and broken boundaries.

The covers reflect this Trickster status. In addition to the female-oriented covers I've mentioned, mystery covers often feature creepy or grisly scenes, with blood, knives, skulls, coffins, headstones, and the like, often depicted as cartoonish, or juxtaposed in an ironic, incongruous background, and highly stylized or exaggerated. It's very contradictory and duplicitous; it seems to be a screen—a way of almost mocking or perhaps just owning the grim, dangerous subject manner—after all, it is entertainment.

Also curious are what I've called the 'fetish mysteries'—subgenre mass market mystery series that cater to very particular interests. They include entire series based around chocolate, knitting, cats, tea, crosswords, baked goods, etc. Their covers are intriguing, often contain hidden things and visual puns, and after browsing through the lot of them, seem somehow akin to carnival art—there's a whole otherworld going on. Since the Trickster archetype/persona often acts as a release valve of sorts for the larger culture, it's no wonder that the images chosen for the book covers are dynamic, reflecting pertinent and changing social dynamics.

*A note about the book cover images pictured here—every one of these were advertised in the same Feb-May issue of The Strand Magazine.


The Strand Magazine

Women of Esoterica Blog: "Woman, light, house: Mid-Century Depictions of the Gothic Genre

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