A friend once spent years researching the intertwined lives of Chief Joseph and his relentless pursuer, US Army General O.O. Howard, only to learn when he presented his book proposal that someone else was about to publish a nearly identical book. I feared landing in a similar position when, having just sent my publisher my manuscript of a murder mystery, Bones of Hilo, set in Hawaiʻi, I heard from my friend James Fallows that he had galley proofs of another such book. “And it’s very good!” Jim added.
Jim then tried to reassure me. “This one’s set during World War Two,” he said, “and its pub date isn’t until October 2021.” He knew my book was set in 2002, with a pub date in June 2021. Still, I was worried.
Jim sent the galleys when he’d finished them. “It’s really, really good,” he enthused again. I unwrapped his package to find the proofs of Five Decembers by James Kestrel. “A pen name,” Jim explained.
What struck me immediately was the cover: A painted image of a young woman, naked, ineffectually clutching a bedsheet. Behind her a naked man, pistol in hand, looked out a window at WW II bombers flying through a fiery maelstrom. The love charm of bombs, I thought, remembering a book about Londoners jumping into bed together during the most harrowing moments of the Blitz – because, I mean, why not?
A naked woman on the cover? I said to myself. This won’t be appearing in bookstores.
But as I started reading the galleys I was immediately enthralled. A Honolulu detective, chasing a horrific killer across the Pacific, lands in Hong Kong – and Japanese captivity – right after Pearl Harbor, is counted for dead back home, discovers in Japan why the grisly Hawaiʻi killings took place, gets back to Hawaiʻi at war’s end, and promptly picks up the thread. Murder mystery morphs into espionage thriller, bookended with two tender love stories. Excellent characters, great plot, terrific pacing, a truly talented writer. This really was the complete package.
Yet what a commercial handicap that cover would be! One couldn’t be seen reading the book on a plane or bus, for example, no matter how engrossing. The women in my life objected too. My daughter exclaimed, “Oh, gross, Dad! That’s so offensive to women!” I tried to explain: But the book itself isn’t. She didn’t stop to listen. My wife was even more harsh. “If you read that in bed,” she warned, “then you’re sleeping on the left side. And please turn it upside down on the nightstand.”
Much later, after Five Decembers had been published and received a cornucopia of rave reviews, I sent a copy to Anne Depue, my literary agent who had been introduced to me by David Brewster of Post Alley. She declared she wouldn’t read it no matter what. She reacted to the cover. Not just its salaciousness; for her it suggested she’d find inside the disgusting misogyny of pulp fiction from decades ago. “But it’s not that at all,” I insisted. “It’s got a really tender love story, two in fact. And the women are treated very well.” This had zero impact; Anne remained repelled.
Right after I’d finished the novel, I had called Fallows to say, “This is a phenomenal book. But that cover’s going to cripple it.” In response, Jim reminded me of a piece he’d written years earlier for The Atlantic (“Noirest of Noir,” June 11, 2008) about the book’s publishing house, Hard Case Crime, and the publisher himself, Charles Ardai.
Charles Ardai has made such covers a signature of Hard Case Crime books, almost a trademark, deliberately harking back to the golden age of noir fiction when covers were far more racy than today. I’d read Jim’s article at the time and bought some terrific Hard Case Crime books as a result – one with a salacious cover (The Cocktail Waitress by James M. Cain) and one without (The Twenty Year Death by Ariel S. Winter). I’d forgotten about the publishing house itself. I thought Five Decembers was so special it deserved a triumph unfettered by its cover.
Jim introduced me to Charles Ardai, who in turn introduced me to the author, Jonathan Moore, a/k/a James Kestrel. I ended up reading most of Jonathan’s earlier and expertly crafted books, all published by others -– Jim did the same after reading Five Decembers -– and two chilling ones by Charles Ardai himself, writing under the pen name Richard Aleas (get it?), an Edgar Award winner in his own right. I told Charles Ardai he had a masterpiece on his hands and that the cover might sink it. He was politely amused at my presumption.
The book’s distributor had voiced the same qualms, he said, and so Ardai assembled a focus group to prove his main point, namely that Hard Case Crime’s devoted followers recognize its books by their covers, and know if they encounter a Hard Case Crime book it’s going to be great. (In addition to best-selling contemporary writers such as Stephen King, Ardai also publishes the lost novels of famed writers from bygone eras such as James M. Cain, Erle Stanley Gardner, and others.) “We would lose more readers than we’d gain by changing the cover,” he told me. But good-naturedly, he’d had tamer alternative covers prepared for a focus group, the distributor, and for author Jonathan Moore – I mean James Kestrel. To my surprise, the focus group confirmed Charles’s view.
In a last ditch effort, I suggested to Charles and Jonathan that the cover could at least be modified so the sheet covered the woman’s bare hip and flank. “Book buyers will still know she’s naked,” I assured Charles, “but it will offend far fewer of them.” Charles became firm. The artist had painted exactly what Charles had asked, he said, and he wasn’t going to offend the artist by requesting that a single brushstroke be changed. Jonathan Moore, who couldn’t tell how the cover would affect sales, resignedly said that whatever happened he’d like the painting for his basement as a reminder of the pre-publishing kerfuffle.
None of us need have worried. Five Decembers appeared last October and quickly made the New York Times Best Mysteries of 2021 list and the Best Books of the Year lists of Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and others. It became an Edgar Award finalist and may win that prestigious honor – the Oscar for murder mysteries. It’s won a Barry Award finalist nomination for Best Thriller. The Wall Street Journal gushed, “Lyrical, violent, intelligent, breathtaking: this is an unforgettable book.” Similar reviews poured in from everywhere, and sales – along with Amazon five-star ratings – simply soared.
Things just got better from there. Jonathan received eight movie offers and is finalizing a film deal with a major production studio. He sold the audio rights for a bundle. Already foreign language editions will appear in Germany, Japan, and Italy – “I’ve got all the Axis powers,” Jonathan joked – and Bulgaria, Serbia, and Romania, just for a start. (Charles Ardai, unlike most publishers, generously leaves most of these rights to his authors.)
Recently I asked Jonathan if, nearly five months after Five Decembers had appeared, any reviewer had ever said anything about the cover. “Yes,” he replied, “just last weekend, for the first time – the Straits Times of Singapore.” I checked the Straits Times review on the Internet. It does mention the cover, but not critically. And the review itself? Another rave.
You can’t judge a book by its cover – we all know that. In this case, although the naked woman catches one’s eye, the blurbs outside and inside the dust jacket are all true. Including a word from me, which Ardai hadn’t forgotten: “A masterpiece.”
But if you decide to read Five Decembers on a plane or bus, you still might want to remove the dust jacket first.