Modernist collages for Penguin Crime
Ed McBain wrote over fifty police-procedural novels set in New York’s fictional 87th precinct. They were immensely popular in the 1950s and 60s. The name Ed McBain was one of the pseudonyms of prolific author Salvatore Lombino who is probably best known as Evan Hunter, screenwriter of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.
Alan Spain, designer and art director, worked at Penguin for almost two decades. He was assistant to art director Germano Facetti, later becoming non-fiction art director during the 1970s. He is not well enough known. He designed the smart covers you see here in 1963-4 and they are the essence of European modernism in Penguin’s Marber-grid period. They stand alongside Romek Marber’s own Crime series collages from 1962 for sheer experimental freedom and energy.
The series is both unified and varied. Spain’s inventiveness gives the offbeat layouts plenty of differences but he locks them into a single identity. He uses black & white photos for documentary effect then contrasts them with the smaller shapes in popping red and green. The angled and off-centre and shapes, combined with the rhythmic lettering, makes me think of modern jazz. And they have an effect of immediacy, like a newspaper article or police report.
Romek Marber‘s 1961 grid holds Spain’s lively illustrations in place. The McBain series was one of the best uses of the grid. Note how visual elements in the illustrations align with the text: the red needle in The Pusher, the wedge-shaped panel in Killer’s Wedge. Alignments tie things together in a unity.
As a series these paperbacks are still collectable but unfortunately they were read so much it’s now rare to find one in really good condition.