British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s: Mystery, Suspense, Spy and Crime Fiction

As demonstrated by Existential Ennui's Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s permanent page, the '50s and '60s were a golden era of British book cover design. After that... well... it all kind of went to pot.

Of course that's not true – not entirely – but there was certainly a sea change in cover design as the 1970s dawned, one which in truth started in the 1960s (and in some cases earlier) with the introduction of photography and the increasing use of separations and superimposing (as opposed to creating a dust jacket design, including the lettering, all of a piece). One of the most influential agents of change, at least as regards British – and British editions of – thrillers and mysteries and the like, was Raymond Hawkey, whose dust jackets for Len Deighton's nameless spy novels (beginning with The Ipcress File, 1962) ushered in a mania for covers sporting photos of artfully arranged props – secret papers, skulls, attache cases, almost always a gun – a mania that Hawkey himself (alongside disciples like Graham Miller and Bill Richmond) helped propagate over ensuing decades, even into the 1990s (superseded these days by the equally ubiquitous 'tiny man running into the distance' cover).

Was this a change for the better? I have my doubts. But at their best – and maybe even more so at their worst – the often artless, unsubtle, brutalist book covers concocted for thrillers in the '70s and '80s were evocative of this arguably darker, more brutal era (in life as much as in genre fiction). So, as a kind of dark flipside to Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s, I've established British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s, a permanent page tribute – after a fashion – to those covers, drawing on the books in my own collection.

I make no great claims for the covers herein (hence the lack of a 'beautiful' in the title). Few of them are, to my mind, the equal of those in the Beautiful British Book Jacket Design gallery – where I was trying to make the point that, the odd stubborn contemporary designer aside, we'd lost something vital in today's homogenised computerised cover design – whereas it could be argued the covers below are the direct antecedents of today's interchangeable crime and thriller covers. Nevertheless, looking at them makes me feel strangely nostalgic, despite the fact that I was only in short trousers in the 1970s and my teens in the 1980s (and accordingly gripped by other concerns – comics, music, masturbation). Given the choice I'd still prefer to see book covers like these on the shelves (or on Amazon) than the designed-by-committee efforts we see nowadays.

And despite the reservations expressed above, some of them are rather good – powerful, playful, provocative, arresting, striking – and even those that aren't still work as kitsch design (stand up and take a bow, Beverley le Barrow). Unsurprisingly, photographic covers far outweigh illustrated ones, but not to the total exclusion of the latter: I wanted the gallery be representative of thriller book covers of the period as a whole – at least as representative as my particular tastes allow – and illustrated covers were still being produced for thrillers in the '70s and '80s, although even these often either ape photography, are influenced by it, or react against it – the illustrations simplified, reduced to outlines and solid blocks of colour or negative space.

You may find the odd example from the decades either side of the '70s and '80s, if I think them apt – the layer between design eras being a porous thing – and unlike Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s, I'm including paperbacks as well in this gallery, as the division between those two formats, quite noticeable in the approach to cover design in the '50s and '60s, had virtually disappeared by this point. I've arranged the covers by author rather than cover designer this time – for the simple reason that arranging by designer would have meant breaking up certain writers' backlists, and that didn't seem right somehow – and there are cover credits, a note of format, and links to whatever I might have written about each book. I'll be adding to the gallery periodically and will post updates on the main blog when I do so. And as with all other pages and posts on Existential Ennui, since these are my books and I took the trouble to photograph or scan their covers (however shoddily), please, anyone who decides to 'borrow' an image, at least do me the courtesy of linking back to the page.

For more on the gallery, go here:

Introducing British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s

Existential Ennui's companion pages:

Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s

Patricia Highsmith First Edition Book Cover Gallery

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Ted Allbeury

The Twentieth Day of January (Granada, 1980); hardback, front jacket photograph by John Knights

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Peter Benchley

Jaws (Andre Deutsch, 1974); hardback, jacket design by Tom Simmonds

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Gavin Black

A Big Wind for Summer (Collins, 1975); hardback, jacket photograph by Christopher Ridley

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Oliver Bleeck

The Brass Go-Between (Hodder & Stoughton, 1970); hardback, jacket design by Kaye Bellman

The Highbinders (Hamish Hamilton, 1974); hardback, dust jacket photograph by Beverly Lebarrow

 No Questions Asked (Hamish Hamilton, 1976); hardback, jacket design by Ken Reilly

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Victor Canning

Firecrest (Heinemann, 1971); hardback, jacket illustration by Bob Lawrie
The Rainbird Pattern (Heinemann, 1972); hardback, jacket photography by Graham Miller

The Finger of Saturn (Heinemann, 1973); hardback, jacket photography by Robert Golden

The Mask of Memory (Heinemann, 1974); hardback, dust jacket photography by Bill Richmond

The Kingsford Mark (Heinemann, 1975); hardback, dust jacket photograph by Peter Phipp

 The Doomsday Carrier (Heinemann, 1976); dust jacket uncredited
Birdcage (Heinemann, 1978); hardback, jacket illustration by Alun Hood

 The Satan Sampler (Heinemann, 1979); hardback, dust jacket uncredited
Vanishing Point (Heinemann, 1982); dust jacket photograph Andy Williams Photo Library

Birds of a Feather (Heinemann, 1985); hardback, dust jacket illustration by Tony Ansell

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Eric Clark

Black Gambit (Hodder & Stoughton, 1978); hardback, jacket design by Raymond Hawkey
The Sleeper (Hodder & Stoughton, 1979); hardback, jacket design by Raymond Hawkey, photography by Peter Williams

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Francis Clifford

A Wild Justice (Hodder & Stoughton, 1972); hardback, jacket design by Brian L. G. Cook

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Max Allan Collins

Bait Money (New English Library, 1976); paperback, cover uncredited
Blood Money (New English Library, 1977); paperback, cover uncredited

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Len Deighton

 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (Jonathan Cape, 1976); hardback, jacket design by Raymond Hawkey, photography by Adrian Flowers

SS-GB (Jonathan Cape, 1978); hardback, jacket design by Raymond Hawkey

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James Dickey

Deliverance (Hamish Hamilton, 1970); hardback, jacket design by Bernard Higton

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Michael Dibdin

The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (Sphere, 1980); paperback, cover uncredited

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Ian Fleming

Casino Royale, From Russia, with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball (Triad/Panther, 1977–1979); paperbacks; photography by Beverley le Barrow, gun prop designed and built by David Collins and Floris van den Broecke

James Bond Box Set (Triad/Panther, 1979); paperbacks

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Alfred Flett

Never Shake a Skeleton (Michael Joseph, 1973); hardback, jacket photograph by Beverly le Barrow

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Frederick Forsyth

The Fourth Protocol (Hutchinson, 1984); hardback, jacket design by Raymond Hawkey, jacket illustration by Harry Willock

Simon Gandolfi

The 100 Kilo Club (Wildwood House, 1975); hardback, jacket design by Richard Ward

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John Gardner

The Airline Pirates (Hodder & Stoughton, 1970); hardback, jacket design by Peter Cope

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Brain Garfield

Death Wish (Hodder & Stoughton, 1973); hardback, jacket design by Jefferson Godwin

Death Sentence (Macmillan, 1976); hardback, jacket photograph by Steve Puplett

Recoil (Macmillan, 1977); hardback, jacket design by Cherriwyn Magill, photographed by Richard Davies

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Jack Gerson

The Assassination Run (BBC Books, 1980); hardback, cover photograph by Graham Ross

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Michael Gilbert

The Body of a Girl (Hodder & Stoughton, 1972); hardback, jacket design by Rene Brown

The Empty House (Hodder, 1978); hardback, dust jacket uncredited

Death of a Favourite Girl (Hodder, 1980); hardback, jacket design by Melvyn Gill

Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens (Hodder, 1982); hardback, dust jacket uncredited

Trouble (Hodder, 1987); hardback, jacket by McNab Design

Young Petrella (Hodder, 1988); hardback, dust jacket uncredited

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William Goldman

Marathon Man (Macmillan, 1975); hardback; jacket design by Stan Fernandes

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William Haggard

The Bitter Harvest (Cassell, 1971); hardback, jacket design by Brian Hampton

The Old Masters (Cassell in 1973); hardback, jacket design by Design Practitioners

The Scorpion's Tail (Cassell, 1975); hardback, jacket photograph by Michael Lyster, The Zoological Society of London

Yesterday's Enemy (Cassell, 1976); hardback; jacket photo by Mick Wells

The Poison People (Cassell, 1978); hardback, dust jacket uncredited

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Adam Hall

The Scorpion Signal (Collins, 1979); hardback (proof thereof), dust jacket uncredited

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Raymond Hawkey

Side-Effect (Jonathan Cape, 1979); hardback, jacket design by Raymond Hawkey, photographed by Adrian Flowers

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George V. Higgins

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Secker & Warburg, 1972); hardback, jacket design by Tom Simmonds

The Digger's Game (Secker & Warburg, 1973); hardback, jacket design by Tom Simmonds
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Jack Higgins

The Eagle Has Landed (Collins, 1975); hardback, jacket illustration by Barry Glynn

Solo (Collins, 1980); hardback, dust jacket design by Donald Macpherson

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Patricia Highsmith

 Ripley Under Ground (Heinemann, 1971); hardback, dust jacket illustration by Mohan

Ripley's Game (Heinemann, 1974); hardback, jacket photography by Graham Miller

Ripley's Game (Penguin, 1976); paperback, cover photograph by Paul Wakefield

The Boy Who Followed Ripley (Heinemann, 1980); hardback, photography by Bill Richmond

Found in the Street (Heinemann, 1986); hardback, design by Peter Dyer, photograph by Kinsman Taylor

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 Geoffrey Household

 The Sending (Michael Joseph, 1980); hardback, jacket by Chris Yates
Summon the Bright Water (Michael Joseph, 1981); hardback, jacket by Chris Yates

Rogue Justice (Michael Joseph, 1982); hardback, jacket by Chris Yates

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P. M. Hubbard

High Tide (Macmillan, 1971); hardback, jacket design by Bush Hollyhead (Nicholas Thirkell Associates)
The Dancing Man (Macmillan, 1971); hardback, jacket design by Bush Hollyhead (Nicholas Thirkell Associates)

A Hive of Glass (Hamish Hamilton, 1972); hardback, jacket design by Tom Sawyer

A Thirsty Evil (Macmillan, 1974); hardback, jacket illustration by Justin Todd
The Graveyard (Macmillan, 1975); hardback, jacket illustration by Cheryl Drower

The Quiet River (Macmillan, 1978); hardback, jacket photo by Chris Yates
Kill Claudio (Macmillan, 1979); hardback, jacket illustration by Barbara Lofthouse

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P. D. James

Cover Her Face (Hamish Hamilton, 1976); hardback, jacket photo by Beverly Lebarrow

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John le Carré

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Hodder & Stoughton, 1974); hardback, cover photograph by Jerry Harpur, design concept by Lippincott and Margulies Limited

The Honourable Schoolboy (Hodder & Stoughton, 1977); hardback, dust jacket uncredited (cover photograph showing the Mekong River at sunrise
Smiley's People (Hodder & Stoughton, 1979); hardback, cover concept and photography by Stephen Cornwell

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Elmore Leonard

Fifty-Two Pickup (Secker & Warburg, 1974); hardback, cover photograph by Graham Miller

The Hunted (Secker & Warburg, 1978); hardback, photography by Graham Miller

The Switch (Secker & Warburg, 1979); hardback, photography by Bill Richmond

The Hunted (Hamlyn, 1980); paperback, cover uncredited

City Primeval (W. H. Allen, 1981); hardback, jacket photography by Howard Bartrop
City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit (Viking, 1987); hardback, jacket photography by Peter Chadwick, jacket design by Bet Ayer

Split Images (W. H. Allen, 1983); hardback, jacket photography by Howard Bartrop

LaBrava (Viking, 1984); hardback, cover uncredited (photos credited to Stockphotos International)

Swag (Penguin, 1983); paperback, cover photograph by Peter Chadwick

Cat Chaser (Viking, 1986); hardback, jacket photography by Peter Chadwick, jacket design by Bet Ayer

Touch (Viking, 1988); hardback, jacket photograph by James Walker, jacket design by Bet Ayer

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Robert Littell

The Debriefing (Hutchinson, 1979); hardback, jacket illustration by Jeremy Ford

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Desmond Lowden

Bellman & True (Eyre Methuen, 1975); hardback, jacket illustration by Mike Heslop

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Robert Ludlum

The Bourne Identity (Granada, 1980); hardback, front jacket photograph by Graham Miller

 The Bourne Supremacy (Granada, 1986); hardback, jacket photograph by Colin Thomas
The Bourne Ultimatum (Grafton, 1990); hardback, jacket photograph by Colin Thomas

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Gavin Lyall

Blame the Dead (Hodder & Stoughton, 1972); hardback, jacket design by Colin Andrews

The Secret Servant (Hodder & Stoughton, 1980); hardback, jacket design by Raymond Hawkey, photography by Peter Williams
The Conduct of Major Maxim (Hodder & Stoughton, 1982); hardback, dust jacket design and photography by Melvyn Gill

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Ross Macdonald

The Moving Target (Fontana, 1966; 1971 second impression); paperback, cover uncredited

The Underground Man (Collins, 1971); hardback, jacket design by Roy Belcher

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Donald MacKenzie

The Kyle Contract (Hodder & Stoughton, 1971); hardback, dust jacket uncredited but possibly by Gordon King

Raven and the Paperhangers (Macmillan, 1980); hardback, jacket photograph by Bill Richmond
Nobody Here by That Name (Macmillan, 1986); hardback, jacket illustration by Martin White

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Ian Mackintosh

The Brave Cannot Yield (Robert Hale, 1970); hardback, jacket design by Kingaby/Keeman

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Arthur Maling

Decoy (Michael Joseph, 1971); hardback, jacket photograph by Beverly le Barrow

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Dan J. Marlowe

The Name of the Game is Death (Gold Lion, 1973); hardback, dust jacket uncredited

Operation Overkill (Coronet, 1973); paperback, cover uncredited 
Operation Endless Hour (Coronet, 1973); paperback, cover uncredited

Operation Fireball (Gold Lion, 1973); hardback, dust jacket uncredited

Operation Breakthrough (Gold Lion, 1973); hardback, dust jacket uncredited
Operation Drumfire (Gold Lion, 1973); hardback, dust jacket uncredited

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Berkely Mather

With Extreme Prejudice (Collins, 1975); hardback, jacket illustration by Barry Glyn

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Charles McCarry

The Miernik Dossier (Hutchinson, 1974); hardback, dust jacket uncredited
The Tears of Autumn (Hutchinson, 1975); hardback, jacket illustration by Ian Robertson

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James Mitchell

A Magnum for Schneider (Herbert Jenkins, 1969); hardback, jacket designed by Ian Kestle

Russian Roulette (Hamish Hamilton, 1973), hardback, jacket photograph by Beverly Lebarrow

Death and Bright Water (Hamish Hamilton, 1973), hardback, dust jacket uncredited

Smear Job (Hamish Hamilton, 1974), hardback, jacket design by Ken Reilly

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David Morrell

First Blood (Barrie & Jenkins, 1972); hardback, illustration by Michael Codd

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Anthony Price

Tomorrow's Ghost (Gollancz, 1979); hardback, jacket photograph by Oliver Hatch

The Hour of the Donkey (Gollancz, 1980); hardback, jacket photograph by Oliver Hatch

Soldier No More (Gollancz, 1981); hardback, jacket photograph by Oliver Hatch

Gunner Kelly (Gollancz, 1983); hardback, jacket design by Brian Nicholls, front of jacket photograph Bruce Coleman Ltd.

The Alamut Ambush (Gollancz, 1983); hardback, jacket designed by Brian Nicholls

Sion Crossing (Gollancz, 1984); hardback, dust jacket design uncredited, jacket illustration from a contemporary drawing by Theodore Russell Davis
Here Be Monsters (Gollancz, 1985); hardback, dust jacket design uncredited, jacket picture from The Romance of the Rose (XV century) courtesy Bodleian Library, Oxford

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Richard Price

The Wanderers (Chatto & Windus, 1975); hardback, jacket design by Graham Palfrey-Rogers

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Sarban

The Sound of His Horn (Sphere, 1970); paperback, cover uncredited

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Richard Stark

 Point Blank! (Coronet Hodder Fawcett, 1970); paperback, cover uncredited

The Rare Coin Score (Coronet Hodder Fawcett, 1970); paperback, cover uncredited

The Steel Hit (Coronet Hodder Fawcett, 1971); paperback, cover uncredited, attributed to Raymond Hawkey
Run Lethal (Coronet Hodder Fawcett, 1972); paperback, cover uncredited, attributed to Raymond Hawkey

Deadly Edge (Coronet Hodder Fawcett, 1972); paperback, cover uncredited, attributed to Raymond Hawkey
Slayground (Coronet Hodder Fawcett, 1973); paperback, cover uncredited, attributed to Raymond Hawkey

The Split (Gold Lion, 1973); hardback, dust jacket uncredited

The Green Eagle Score (Gold Lion, 1973); hardback, dust jacket uncredited
The Sour Lemon Score (Gold Lion, 1973); hardback, dust jacket uncredited

Butcher's Moon (Coronet Hodder Fawcett, 1977); paperback, cover uncredited

Point Blank (Allison & Busby, 1984); hardback, jacket design by Mick Keates

The Man with the Getaway Face (Allison & Busby, 1984); hardback, jacket design by Mick Keates
Slayground (Allison & Busby, 1984); hardback, jacket design by Mick Keates

The Outfit (Allison & Busby, 1988); hardback, jacket design by Mick Keates

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Ross Thomas

 The Fools in Town Are on Our Side (Hodder & Stoughton, 1970); hardback, jacket design by Wilson Buchanan

The Porkchoppers (Hamish Hamilton, 1974); hardback, jacket design by Bernard Higton

 If You Can't be Good (Hamish Hamilton, 1974); hardback, jacket photograph by Beverly Lebarrow
If You Can't be Good (Pan, 1975/6); paperback, cover uncredited

The Money Harvest (Hamish Hamilton, 1975); hardback, jacket photograph by Beverly Lebarrow
Yellow Dog Contract (Hamish Hamilton, 1977); hardback, jacket photograph by Beverly Lebarrow

Chinaman's Chance (Hamish Hamilton, 1978); hardback, jacket photograph by Beverly Lebarrow

The Eighth Dwarf (Hamish Hamilton); hardback, jacket photograph by Beverly Lebarrow

The Mordida Man (Hamish Hamilton, 1981); dust jacket designed by David Butler

Missionary Stew (Hamish Hamilton, 1984); hardback, dust jacket designed by Pat Doyle.
Briarpatch (Hamish Hamilton, 1985); hardback, dust jacket designed by Pat Doyle.

Out on the Rim (Century Hutchinson, 1987); hardback, dust jacket uncredited

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Jim Thompson

The Getaway (Sphere, 1973); paperback, cover uncredited

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Donald E. Westlake

The Hot Rock (Hodder & Stoughton, 1971); hardback, jacket design by Lipscombe, Lubbock, Ewart and Holland
Bank Shot 1972 (Hodder & Stoughton, 1972); hardback, dust jacket uncredited

I Gave at the Office (Hodder & Stoughton, 1972); hardback, dust jacket uncredited

Jimmy the Kid (Hodder & Stoughton, 1975); hardback, jacket design by Tony Page

Two Much! (Hodder & Stoughton, 1976); hardback, dust jacket uncredited

 Nobody's Perfect (Hodder & Stoughton, 1978); hardback, jacket design by Mark Wilkinson
A New York Dance (Hodder & Stoughton, 1979); hardback, jacket artist Mark Wilkinson

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Gordon Williams

Big Morning Blues (Hodder & Stoughton, 1974); hardback, jacket design by Jeff Godwin

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Andrew York

The Dominator (Hutchinson, 1969); hardback, front cover photograph by George Coral

The Infiltrator (Hutchinson, 1971); hardback, jacket design by Keith Inman
The Expurgator (Hutchinson, 1972): jacket design by Michael Bramman

The Fascinator (Hutchinson, 1975): jacket photograph by Chris Parker

The Combination (Severn House, 1984); hardback, photograph of mosque in Isfahan, Iran, courtesy of Michael Lancaster

7 comments:

  1. Great great stuff!

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  2. Great selection. Most are good, and even the duff ones have a period appeal. These covers bring back YA reader memories of seeing the shelves in the genre fiction sections of libraries in the early/mid 80s. Lots of it was from the 70s, and the bleak feel of these sort of covers & the stories left a lasting impression. As you say, a brutal era. I was more into sci-fi (especially the downbeat/dytopian stuff, loads of the UK ones seemed to involve civilisation collapsing or at the least London being destroyed) and a bit of horror than the straight thrillers, but I read plenty of those too. The overall look of the covers across genres was very similar. Top marks for the Callan covers, and for the related article on it you linked to. I was lucky to find some of them second hand about 10 years ago. Big fan of the series. Anyway, keep up your good work!

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  3. I know what you mean about libraries in the 1980s, Leroy: I was in my teens then, and I can picture a lot of these books on the shelves of my local library in Beckenham (whether they were actually there or not). Thanks for the comment, and the kind words about the Callan stuff.

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  4. Great collection of covers. Helen MacInnes (Fontana) had a good selection in the 1960s, and there were the 4-square Desmond Cory covers, all uniform in style.

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  5. Check mout Raymond Hawkey's opening credit sequence for 'Oh What A Lovely War!'. Very late sixties early seventies. Most of the above covers remind me of newsagents in the seventies and early eighties selling crime paperbacks. As well as being taken to see relatives who couldn't have cared less what salubrious crime/action fiction they left lying around the house.

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