Book covers

Book Cover Design and the Legitimation of Crime Fiction in Czechoslovakia (1960- 1980) – The Smaragd Series



by Marcela Poucova, University of Brno


After the 1948 coup which brought the Communist Party to power in Czechoslovakia, the cultural climate changed considerably. Before then, there had been a number of publishing houses whose production covered various literary fields. With the dictatorship of the proletariat, the Soviet cultural model came to the fore. Socialist Realism was the order of the day, together with its vision of culture as a means of educating the masses. Private publishers gave way to several state-run ones led by the most devoted party members. Not only some authors, but even certain genres became undesirable.

Both high-brow literature of the highest quality (unless of Soviet provenience) as well as paraliterary genres fell out of favour. Works from the other side of the Iron Curtain without any strong leftist tendencies were deemed to be propaganda. Popular fiction, namely the ‘lower’ genres such as westerns, romances, and crime or spy novels were considered unworthy of the new builders of Communism. Of these, it was only crime and spy literature which managed to ‘turn coat’ and find its place under the new regime, albeit by adapting to the new political order by capitulating to its demands. As a result, from the 1950s, the vast majority of spy novels depicted the uncovering of clandestine activities of imperialistic countries whose ‘prime interest’ was to destroy the new  (Communist) democracies. Similarly, crime novels portrayed individual criminal activities of people who could not identify with the revolutionary ideals of the new society.

In the 1960s, the political scene began to change and editorial policies were relaxed. Culturally, this decade was the most interesting part of the era. As for domestic crime novel production – talented authors emerged for whom the genre brought an interesting challenge and a novel way to describe the reality of society. At the same time, the number of translated novels also increased. Naturally, in the spy genre these were by authors from the Soviet bloc. However, the crime and detective genre started to open up to more global influences. The reasons for this were clear. The public was hungry for a relaxing read that was not burdened with ideological content and, economically, this genre was profitable. Nevertheless, in a socialist state, when it came to ideology, profitability was pushed aside. Publishing houses with devoted party members at the helm created a number of measures designed to select the ‘right’ authors, novels and genres:

Firstly – series were created in which both ideologically ‘suitable’ and perhaps less safe authors were published together.

Then, in order to add credibility to such novels, introductions or epilogues were included explaining how to read the text ‘correctly’, preventing the possibility of creating subversive impressions.

Lastly, the unifying of cover designs helped to wipe out differences between good and bad titles and genres, affording all titles the same level of artistic attention. The same approach was used for designing film posters. Hence the top designers and illustrators of that time created what became a symbol of Czech film production between 1960 and 1980 – film poster designs of high artistic value. These same artists also often designed covers of crime novel series.

Crime aesthetics

Film posters and crime novel covers of that period were at the highest level of artistic production, combining graphic collage and other popular techniques of the day, and using imagery typical for this genre, such as motifs evoking thrills or violence and contrasting colours.

Covers within series adhered to a prescribed look. To ensure their easy identification, artists had to work according to a unified cover layout and follow a specific graphic model. This periodically changed alongside changing tastes, but without any significant change of the original concept. The most original design concept in the sphere of crime literature were the green pages of the Smaragd (emerald) series. The green colour of the pages became symbolic of the crime genre in Czechoslovakia, and other series as well as individually published novels used green as their main genre identifier.

The Smaragd series

[A list of all titles with photographs of the book covers is on:]

Let’s take the Smaragd series as an example. The concept was created in the late 50s and the first of 133 titles was published in 1958. It was the classic novel by Robert Louis Stevenson The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Following titles were by the well-known Czech crime literature authors Edouard Fiker and Emil Vachek. These titles were seen as ideologically safe and were followed by several novels by ‘approved’ western authors. ‘Approved’ meant they were either dead or that no critical attitude towards the Communist regime could be found within their work – such as Agatha Christie or Emile Gaboriau. Also acceptable were books that contained criticism of Western society.

The cover design of the first 29 titles had a band of three colours running up the right hand edge, containing the title and author’s name. The rest of the cover was filled with an illustration, often in one or two colours, and in dark tones. The techniques used were various – linocut, etching or dry point.


Cover illustration by Václav Sivko (presentation of his graphic work:


Emil Vachek
(1889 – 1964)
Černá hvězda, 1959. A Inspektor Klubíčko Mystery, Cover illustration by Václav Sivko


John Cecil Masterman, An Oxford Tragedy (1933),  1961, Cover illustration by J. Balcara

From the publication number 30 (which was Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake) published in 1965, the green colour of emerald (smaragd) made its first appearance. It was later used as the background colour and branding. The colour band was exchanged for a circle and semicircle in the top part of the cover with the title set horizontally in the circle and the author’s name vertically in the semicircle. Positioned vertically on the top left edge, the title of the series now also appeared. Realistic drawings were replaced by collages but the dark colour schemes remained.


Graham Greene, The Ministry of Fear (1943) Cover illustration by Václav Sivko


Cover illustration by  Jaroslav Fišer (presentation of his graphic work:


Cover illustration by Jaroslav Fišer

The most significant change came with title number 46 – Sébastian Japrisot’s Trap for Cinderella. With it the series design achieved its famous look, which has often been imitated. On a green background, an emerald crystal (which became the symbol of the series) was positioned in the top left corner. The rest of the top third contained the title and author’s name, most often in a combination of white and black. The remaining two thirds were filled with an illustration in a black frame. Until title number 123, only the image changed, with the rest of the cover remaining the same. In most cases the illustration was an ink-drawn graphic collage or a photomontage, but other techniques could be found too. The most fundamental change that the 1970s brought was in the colour scheme. The colours were brighter, with contrasting selections and combinations as was the contemporary aesthetic model.


Cover illustration by Jaroslav Fišer


Cover illustration by Jaroslav Fišer


Cover illustrations by Jaroslav Fišer


Cover illustration by Jaroslav Fišer


Cover illustration by Jaroslav Fišer


Crimes en trompe l’oeil
(Prix du Quai des Orfèvres 1991) Cover illustration by Václav Kučera (presentation of his graphic work:


Despite the fact that the series published 133 titles, the number of designers and illustrators working on the covers was small. The leading name of the initial period was Václav Sivko (1923-1974) who, after title number 30, was followed by Jaroslav Fišer (1919-2003). Fišer was in charge of the Smaragd series design until 1989 and at the same time was one of the most famous film poster designers in Czechoslavakia between 1960 and 1980.

The end of the Smaragd series

The last change came with the early 1990s. Due to his age Jaroslav Fišer stopped working on this series. After the fall of the Communist regime, cover design ceased to be one of the very few ways for graphic designers and artists to earn a living, and the quality of cover designs of that period bore a sad testimony to this. Under the free market system (before a system of grants for various publishing projects became available) many publishing houses faced bankruptcy and they abandoned financially demanding projects. This was the fate of the Smaragd series. Following nine titles published after 1989, the series was discontinued in 1993 and left the field open to products of the free market, which appeared to give preference to poorly translated American crime novels with little aesthetic ambitions. And so, in the 1990s, after thirty years in the spotlight of continuous care, crime literature returned to its original place, on the lower levels of Czech literary production.


Databáze knih: Smaragd. smaragd [online]. Česká republika, 2015 [cit. 2015-07-10].

Databáze knih: Jaroslav Fišer. Jaroslav Fišer [online]. Česká republika, 2015 [cit. 2015-07-10]. )

Databáze knih: Václav Kučera. Václav Kučera [online]. Česká republika, 2015 [cit. 2015-07-10].

Databáze knih: Václav Sivko. Václav Sivko [online]. Česká republika, 2015 [cit. 2015-07-10].

Filmový plakát. STEGER, Ondřej. [online]. Česká republika [cit. 2015-07-10].

Národní knihovna České republiky: Katalogy NK ČR. Národní knihovna České republiky: Katalogy a databáze [online]. Česká republika, 2012 [cit. 2015-07-10].

Obálky knih. [online]. Česká republika, 2013 [cit. 2015-07-10].

Terryho ponožky: Plakáty. [online]. Česká republika, 2008 [cit. 2015-07-10].


The Executioner Weeps

Frédéric Dard – The Executioner Weeps (translated by  David Coward, Pushkin Vertigo, 09.03.2017, original title Le bourreau pleure, 1956)


“And then suddenly everything had changed. Yes, everything, and all on the account of that supine figure which had come out of the night and leapt into the bright lights of my car.”  (Page 10)

Thus begins the highly popular French crime noir author Frédéric Dard’s prize-winning novel The Executioner Weeps. The book follows the story of Daniel Mermet, a famous French painter, who is on vacation in Francoist Spain when he accidentally hits a young and beautiful woman with his car. The woman survives, but Mermet soon discovers that she has lost her memory. Taking care of her, Daniel falls in love with the mysterious stranger and goes on a quest to France to gather information on her past – a past full of lies and vice and horror, which would be better forgotten. Continue reading

Transatlantic Fiction made in France

JDW collection Noire


Imprimerie du Livre, Colombes, December 1951, Cover Art by Jef de Wulf. ( From Didier Poiret’s collections)  

Troughout the late 1940s and early 1950s many French publishers saw a business opportunity in trying to replicate the success of Gallimard’s iconic Série Noire, launched in 1945 by former Surrealist Marcel Duhamel.  The short-lived Collection noire franco-américaine, published by the Editions du Globe (and from 1952 by Editions du Trotteur) between 1950 and 1953, is one such venture. It is also one of the more striking as it invested in quality rather than merely aiming at supplying readers with a cheap ersatz.

The Collection Noire, like the Série Noire reflected the success of  American noir films in post-war France, as well as French curiosity for American Hard-boiled novels. While the Série Noire was largely responsible for instilling a taste for American noir in France, the editions du Globe, with their Collection Noire, sought to capitalise on this emerging market. Unlike the Série Noire, who had by then already published  American authors such as Chandler, Hammett, McCoy, Finnegan, Tracy, Cain (both Paul and James) and Latimer, the Collection Noire had no American talent to back up its “franco-américaine” credentials. Without exception, all authors were French.  The pseudonyms they adopted were often meant to sound American, and their novels were supposed to recall, in both style and theme, not to mention through their violent and bleak outlook, the authors popularised by the Série Noire.  The Collection Noire franco-americaine was not content to simply recall the Série Noire in name and for the colour scheme (namely the trademark black and yellow combination of the Série Noire). From 1951, it called upon some of the best illustrators in the trade (René Brantonne, Jef de Wulf,  Mik, Salva, among others) and in doing so departed from the beautiful austerity of the imageless Série Noire covers.


JDW Collection Noire1


While the Série Noire, at least until 1953, would show the utmost reluctance for publishing French authors, the Collection Noire featured established French writers, many of who had already published in the crime genre, and even won awards. One such author is André Helena, a true pioneer of the French noir genre and one its the best. Deemed unsuitable for publication in the Série Noire, his novel Les filles me perdront was published in 1953, the 20th volume in the Collection Noire series. Another is Joseph-Louis Sanciaume, born in 1903 and already the author of dozens of detective novels, who was awarded the 1947 Action Novel award for  Sinistre turbin ! (Collection noire, Volume 2, 1952, Illustrated by Brantonne) .

Another, Claude Ferny (aka Pierre Marchand, b. 1906), had only published a handful of crime novels (in the Series La Cagoule), before joining the ranks of the Collection Noire, with whom he went on to publish several novels, more than any other author. He would subsequently go on to write some thirty crime novels elsewhere.

Tellingly, the Collection Noire published the first Frenchman to be published in the Série Noire, Serge-Marie Arcouët (b. 1916), using in both cases the same pseudo-Aamerican pseudonym, Terry Stewart. His novel C’est dans la poche was published in the Collection Noire in 1952, with an illustration by Salva.

The  Collection Noire franco-américaine’s Cover Art can be admired at :



The Art of French Crime Fiction


Luc Ferran


Jef de Wulf (Publisher’s advertisement for the Luc Ferran Series, Editions de l’Arabesque, 1958-1969)

Until the 21st of March, Queen’s University Library will host an exhibition on classic Crime Fiction, Spy Thrillers and Suspense Series in France. The exhibition showcases some of the 1,500 Crime Fiction books in the French language, which have been recently added to the collections, having recently been donated to the Library by the Paris-based Bibliothèque des Littératures policières (BILIPO) and other partners in the project “Visualising European Crime Fiction”. This project, led by Dr Dominique Jeannerod (School of Modern Languages) together with colleagues in the ICRH Research Group, International Crime Fiction was awarded a grant by the AHRC, as part of the Big Data in the Arts and Humanities Framework (2014-2015)




The project’s chief task was to develop innovative digital methods with which to bibliographically record (database) and visually present (Graphs, Maps, Dataviz) the innumerable volumes of Crime Fiction published across Europe since the early 20th Century. The aim in developing such new digital instruments was to rethink the significance of popular culture and its dissemination in a globalised world. It was also to reconsider the role of crime fiction in a transnational, cultural and literary context. Continue reading

Blood and Sex: Violence and sexuality in Greek crime fiction series of the 1970s.


By Nikos Filippaios (PhD candidate, University of Ioannina, Greece)

Since its beginning, crime fiction in Greece has usually been distributed by publishers in multi-volume series. The first series of crime fiction translated into Greek were published from the 1910s to the 1930s, initially outside of Greece, in the Ottoman capital of Istanbul, where many Greek-speaking people lived, and some years later in Athens (Kassis, 165). Before long however, it centred exclusively around publishers, translators and writers based in Athens. In addition to series of novels and short stories, many magazines appeared dedicated exclusively to crime fiction and the successful family magazines of the era often featured detective stories. Following the difficult decade of the 1940s, in which Greece was wracked by the Second World War and a civil war, the crime, and popular fiction publishing industry in Greece in general, prospered. After the mid-1950s however, something of a “golden era” for popular literature in Greece, a slow decline began, culminating in a defeat by the cinema, TV and, finally, digital media (Filippaios 2015, 5-19).

Cover of Greek edition of 'Berlin, Check-point Charlie' by Gerard De Villiers. It was published in 1975 as volume 533 of the “Viper” series by Papyros. Translation was by Tasso Kavvadia, an actress, radio producer and translator. She was an important figure during this time in Greece.

Cover of Greek edition of ‘Berlin, Check-point Charlie’ by Gérard De Villiers. It was published in 1975 as volume 533 of the “Viper” series by Papyros. Translation was by Tasso Kavvadia, an actress, radio producer and translator. She was an important figure during this time in Greece.

A compelling phenomenon visible in the evolution of Greek crime fiction of this time is an increasing shift towards violence and sexuality, a trend which began during the early 1970s and lasted at least until the end of the decade. This shift became evident between 1968 and 1972, with the appearance of three new series. The most important of these was the “VIPER Series of crime fiction novel by Papyros (English: “papyrus”) Publications, a publishing house established in 1936 in Athens, which expanded into the crime fiction genre in 1968. This series was so successful that, not only did it continue publishing until the early 1990s, but some volumes can still be found in kiosks and bookshops around Greece today (Koskinas, 21/01/2014). “VIPER” initially followed the trend of other famous crime fiction series, including mainly classic writers such as Agatha Christie and James Chase. But from 1975 onwards, its publisher turned chiefly to Gérard De Villiers’ SAS novels. After Ian Fleming’s James Bond, SAS’s Malko Linge was the next most famous literary spy who fascinated Greek readers with his violent and erotic adventures.

The Greek edition of SAS à l'ouest de Jérusalem by Gérard De Villiers. Also translated by Tasso Kavvadia, it was published in 1976 as volume 610 of the “Viper” series. Its weathered cover shows the connection between popular literature and the everyday life of its readers.

The Greek edition of ‘SAS à l’ouest de Jérusalem’ by Gérard De Villiers. Also translated by Tasso Kavvadia, it was published in 1976 as volume 610 of the “Viper” series.
Its weathered cover shows the connection between popular literature and the everyday life of its readers.

In fact, Papyrus Publications’ interest in a more hard-core subgenre of crime fiction, such as the spy novel, probably influenced two other, smaller series. Although both featured fewer volumes and were distributed by smaller publishing houses, they followed the trend of “blood and sex” from inception. The first of these was “Fascinating Pocket Books” and was published by Panthir (English: ‘panther’) Publications. Probably active between 1970 and 1973, Panthir Publications was created and curated by Dimitris Chanos, a writer and publisher who began his career in the iconic crime fiction pulp magazine Mask (Chanos, 221-240). From its very first volumes, Panthir adopted a very specific approach: (a) focusing on “hard-boiled” crime fiction writers, mainly Mickey Spillane, and (b) replacing older cover illustrations, usually with photo collages of scantily clad women, an aesthetic which borrows elements from soft-core pornography. Along the same vein, “Modern Pocket Books”, one of the first attempts from Kampanas Publications and also circulating during early 70s, adopted a similar approach to its covers, but with slightly more conservative images. The main writer featuring in “Modern Pocket Books” was Anthony Morton, a pen name of John Greasy. Particularly popular were his spy novels featuring “the Baron”.

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Mills and Boon Arsène Lupin

Mills & Boon

Maurice Leblanc, 813, Translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos, London, Mills and Boon,  1910

First published in France in 1909, the classic Arsène Lupin novel 813 was translated in England the following year by the then new publishing house, now famous for sentimental novels.  This might come as  a surprise but seems at the same time revealing. One of the secrets of Lupin’s attraction was his ability to cross generic boundaries. This Belle Époque Gentleman was not to be confined to the (then not yet theoretically defined, or even clearly marketed by publishers) crime genre. His charm appealed to both male and female readers, ensuring his widespread success. It is thus fitting that this French cousin of Hornung’s Raffles seduced the British market under the cover of a young publisher (Mills &Boon was founded in 1908) whose name would become a byword for stories of Latin lovers.

Noir writer in the Shadows: Carroll John Daly


The Man in the Shadows, Grosset & Dunlap, 1928 (1930s reprint)

Carroll John Daly is the inventor of noir, having written a series of hardboiled stories even before Dashiell Hammett. He created the first  Black Mask P.I, Race Williams, before Hammett’s Continental Op (both character debuted in 1923). He was the most popular pulp magazine author and it was said that the sole mention of his name on their covers meant a 15% increase in sales. After the war, Mickey Spillane, whose success with Mike Hammer far surpassed Daly’s, would acknowledge his debt to him; Daly’s was “the first and only style of writing” that influenced him in any way. Despite all this, Daly is now largely forgotten. His books were rarely translated, and are no longer read. Yet, his output was not contained to writing stories for pulp magazines, with 11 hardback crime novels published between 1926 and 1937. Continue reading