The Key to Great Cover Art – The Glass Key

One can almost hear the thrilling mystery music playing in the background as one picks up this first edition of the Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett.   The eyes are torn between the bright green letters and the large comic font and the black and white image of the girl. Just as with his writing, there is so much going on, it’s difficult to decide what to focus on first.

1931 Edition of The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett
Cover of The Glass Key (New York: Knopf, 1931). Photograph by Astha Berry. The Sheraton Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

The very first thing my eyes honed in on was the compelling look of the young and beautiful damsel in distress trapped in what appears to be a small window or opening. Her classic red lipstick and dramatic expression look Hollywood ready – which is fitting since Dashiell Hammet’s writing made for great screenplays and movie adaptations. The look is sensational and automatically, as the reader, questions begin to flood your mind: “Who is that girl? Where is she? Why does she look so distraught? Is she alone or is there someone else in the background? Does anybody actually look like that in dire circumstances?” And so forth.

On the other hand, the title in its eye-catching lettering takes up almost half of the cover. The light green has an ominous effect associated with evil and horror films. As the only pop of color on the cover, the lettering also draws attention to itself. Behind the lettering, the reader may realize they are looking at a keyhole – a detail that might not have registered at first. After reading the title though, it would make sense to include a key or keyhole in the picture. The cover has become infinitely more intriguing because that small window could be a keyhole, and of course, all keys lead to something or someplace, so even more questions arise.

A final ingredient in the reader’s experience is the fact that this book is by the one and only Dashiell Hammett, as explicitly emblazoned across the bottom of the cover. By this time he is already well known, so the book is expected to be an exciting and fast-paced page turner and the cover art only adds to this expectation. The blurb on the cover that mentions his other famous book, The Maltese Falcon, builds an association and hints at another promising mystery.

All of this is done without a word mentioned about the plot or the characters – an air of mystery and thrill have already been set in place before a single page has been read. This exact same cover image of the lady in the keyhole is also reprinted on the back (without the lettering). There is no short description or summary or quotes as many novels display nowadays on their back cover. The photo and lettering emphasize to the reader the mystery awaiting them without any description or clues to the actual novel inside.  From the beginning, the reader is ready to be excited  – and that is the key to effective cover art.

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