Saturday, 22 October 2016

Tom Adams, the genius who illustrated Agathie Christie covers for 20 years - and a dreadful BBC 4 programme about crime fiction by Andrew Marr

I find that an unsettling, macabrely attractive image. By the Pricking of My Thumbs was one of half a dozen or so 1960s and 1970s Fontana editions of Agatha Christie novels I picked up for a pound each at Oxfam six or seven years ago...

..but it was only while browsing on Pinterest yesterday that I realised how insidiously brilliant the covers were. Doing a bit more digging online, I found that they're widely considered to be the finest series of paperback crime novel covers of all time: I wouldn't disagree.
Agatha Christie was on my mind last week following an absolutely dreadful, lazy, clichéd and uninformative BBC 4 programme about crime fiction, the first in a three part series entitled Sleuths, Spies & Sorcerers: Andrew Marr's Paperback Heroes. Turned out that Marr wasn't a fan of Christie, which was odd, given the title of the series. In fact, I struggled to discern any particular enthusiasm for or any detailed knowledge of any Golden Age crime novelist - Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Anthony Berkeley/Francis Iles, Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, Freeman Wills Croft, Michael Innes, Edmund Crispin, Cyril Hare? If any of them were heroes to Marr, he managed to hide it well. The whole era was dismissed with barely-disguised contempt, and for all the standard reasons - the books were snobbish, formulaic, socially unaware, deeply conservative, escapist etc. etc.
Marr cheered up a bit when he extricated himself from the silly old Golden Age (currently enjoying a huge revival thanks to ebooks, although this wasn't mentioned, presumably because it didn't fit hisprogressivist "narrative") and decamped (metaphorically) to America. It didn't seem to occur to Marr that, although Raymond Chandler was a fine writer, the hard-boiled style he burnished and refined (some would say he perfected it) was every bit as clichéd and formulaic as the one conjured up by his Golden Age colleagues. And his plotting skills were practically non-existent: we might not very much care who killed Roger Ackroyd, but at least we found out out who actually did it, and why - not always the case with Chandler's victims. 
Back in Britain, Marr's admiration for Ruth Rendell (a leftie) was obvious. Her detectives were"ordinary" (hoorah!) and she "used detective fiction to hold a mirror up to contemporary Britain and reflect back the sinister stuff lying just beneath the surface" and "anatomised the rotten heart of how things are." Oh goody! Next up was Mike Phillips, the brother of the former head of the Commission for Racial Equality, who created the black London private eye Sam Dean. This, you'll be surprised and delighted to hear, allowed Phillips to discuss issues like "racism" and "identity" - which just happen to be the kind of stuff which interests lefties like Andrew Marr. We were then treated tom some interview clips of left-winger Val McDermid (does she actually have an office at the BBC?) and left-winger Ian Rankin (Anthony Horowitz had been on a bit earlier.) There are hundreds - probably thousands - of crime writers producing novels right now (an old colleague of mine from BBC News has just produced one, which is selling extremely well). Wouldn't it have been nice to hear from some contemporary crime writers who haven't been been interviewed a thousand times already?  
Back to Tom Adams, a 90 year-old Anglo-Scots illustrator who lives in North Cornwall. He did his first Christie cover in 1962, and, over the next 20 years, produced covers for all her books, often more than once. He also created (different) Christie covers for PocketBooks in the US (and their Raymond Chandler paperbacks), as well as illustrations for novels by Eric Ambler and John Fowles in the UK - it was the cover he did for The Collector which persuaded Collins to let him loose on Christie. The one distinctive quality of Christie' books that Andrew Marr managed to highlight was the pervading sense of evil: Adams captured this well, and some of his illustrations wouldn't look out of place on horror fiction:
While the Gothic covers are fun, I prefer his cool, sinister collages of realistically-depicted objects: 
Tom Adams's personal website can be found here. The artist published a book - Tom Adams Uncovered: The Art of Agatha Christie and Beyond - last year, which has gone to the top of my Christmas present list:
As for Andrew Marr, he'll be doing spy fiction tomorrow evening. I refuse to watch unless the BBC guarantees that he won't be attempting any more "acting" - his attempt at an American accent last week was excruciatingly dreadful, and the very mention of a Scotsman always sees him "och aye the noo"-ing away like billy-oh. The last time the BBC lets one of its pet presenters lose on the subject of crime fiction, it chose Lucy Worsley's, whose A Very British Murder series in 2013 was another half-baked yawnathon. The next time some bright spark decides to commission a documentary about genre fiction, perhaps they could break with tradition and invite an acknowledged expert to at least write the script for it.

Meanwhile, a BBC 4 programme about cover art would be most welcome - especially if it doesn't involve Andrew Marr, and if it includes lengthy sections on Tom Adams; the hardcover James  Bond illustrator, Richard Chopping (who I wrote about here); and, of course, the great Pan paperback master,  Sam Peffer, who I eulogised here. And, of course, it has to include the cover which got Tom Adams the Agatha Christie gig 54 years ago:

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful covers.

    Lay off poor old Marr. He has not been blessed in the good looks department and he has had a stroke. Although I was disappointed to hear that he has been trying out his comic accents again. I thought Jeremy Vine had dissuaded everyone from this type of behaviour.

    Val McDermid. I know she is a woman but I am always waiting for the jatz crackers to pop out. Because of her distinguished output the BBC obviously regards her as the nation's Greatest Living Literary Critic [followed closely by La Frostrup]. She was on a programme about the Man Booker last night apparently.

    Re her having an office at the BBC? The answer is yes and she shares it with Susan Calman [4'11"] and the Eskimo Dwarf Celeb where they all chatter away about gay ishoos and chin reduction surgery.