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: http://www.databazeknih.cz/edice/smaragd-18/strana-1]

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: http://www.databazeknih.cz/autori-obalek/vaclav-sivko-4622)


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: http://www.databazeknih.cz/autori-obalek/jaroslav-fiser-4630)


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: http://www.databazeknih.cz/autori-obalek/vaclav-kucera-4352


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. Databazeknih.cz: smaragd [online]. Česká republika, 2015 [cit. 2015-07-10]. http://www.databazeknih.cz/edice/smaragd-18/strana-1

Databáze knih: Jaroslav Fišer. Databazeknih.cz: Jaroslav Fišer [online]. Česká republika, 2015 [cit. 2015-07-10]. http://www.databazeknih.cz/autori-obalek/jaroslav-fiser-4630 )

Databáze knih: Václav Kučera. Databazeknih.cz: Václav Kučera [online]. Česká republika, 2015 [cit. 2015-07-10]. http://www.databazeknih.cz/autori-obalek/vaclav-kucera-4352

Databáze knih: Václav Sivko. Databazeknih.cz: Václav Sivko [online]. Česká republika, 2015 [cit. 2015-07-10]. http://www.databazeknih.cz/autori-obalek/vaclav-sivko-4622

Filmový plakát. STEGER, Ondřej. Filmovy-plakat.cz [online]. Česká republika [cit. 2015-07-10]. http://www.filmovy-plakat.cz/

Národní knihovna České republiky: Katalogy NK ČR. Národní knihovna České republiky: Katalogy a databáze [online]. Česká republika, 2012 [cit. 2015-07-10]. https://www.nkp.cz/katalogy-a-db/katalogy-nk-cr

Obálky knih. Obalkyknih.cz [online]. Česká republika, 2013 [cit. 2015-07-10]. http://www.obalkyknih.cz/

Terryho ponožky: Plakáty. Terryhoponozky.cz/ [online]. Česká republika, 2008 [cit. 2015-07-10]. http://www.terryhoponozky.cz/plakaty/


Still Silver’s city? Maurice Leitch’s 1981 prize-winning novel re-released.

A review by Daniel Magennis. PhD candidate at Queen’s University Belfast.


Front cover of the May 2017 reissue of ‘Silver’s City’ by Turnpike Books.

A German once said the Irish always reminded him of a pack of hounds pulling down a stag, but, Nan, we only drag down our own kind. Or try to. (107-8)[1] Continue reading

Crime fiction in Soviet Russia.


Leonid Leonov (1899-1994) Вор, 1927, an influential example of Russian Crime Fiction

Leonid Leonov (1899-1994) Вор, 1927

There is a tendency in Western histories of crime fiction to present the evolution of the genre throughout the 20th century as a purely Western phenomenon.  Crime fiction from Eastern bloc countries is little known about and conspicuously absent from contemporary assessments of the genre. Crime fiction from these areas seems truly to have been consigned to the dustbins of history. This process of oblivion is not really surprising; after all, it is the fate of the immense majority of works of crime fiction to sink without leaving much bibliographical traces. Most crime novels, including best sellers, are forgotten about within years. In addition, there has been a widespread suspicion that,  until the 1960’s, much crime fiction from outside the main innovators of the genre (France, England,  and the USA) was derivative rather than original, seeking to reproduce the Western models rather than reinventing the genre in their own terms. Also, the new social, economic, and ideological agenda set by new regimes following the collapse of the Eastern European peoples’ Republics have encouraged cultural industries in these countries to emphasise a sense of a caesura separating current production from that from the previous era. There is some complicity on the part of contemporary authors from these areas to liquidate a literary past they consider burdensome and with which they do not want to be associated.  Thus, one of Russia’s most successful modern crime fiction writers today, Boris Akunin is predictably keen to dismiss such past, stressing that crime fiction in the USSR existed only in “embryonic form”[1]. “In Soviet times having a crime take place in literature was simply unthinkable, for how,” he asks, “could there be a crime in the land of triumphant socialism?”[2] Writing crime fiction dissecting society’s ills, as did many examples of American noir, in Soviet Russia may not have seem expedient. Continue reading

The Golden Age of Murder


The highly anticipated book by Martin Edwards on  “the mystery of the writers who invented the modern detective story” is being released today. It promises to shed new light on the 1930s authors who published in Britain and formed part of the Detection Club. It invites readers to undertake a long overdue reconsideration of both their literary output and their worldviews. The problem with authors who were, for so long, as famous and dominant as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and John Dickson Carr is that it is easy to feel complacent about them. For a very long time, golden age authors have been seen as unfashionable in both literary and political circles. The noir genre, especially after WWII, seemed more exciting, modern and transgressive. While structuralists and narrative theorists have, from Todorov in the 1960s to Pierre Bayard, more recently, praised golden age authors’ artful plot construction, their politics had never really been reappraised. Chandler, in distancing the realistic, street-savy, brand of crime fiction he represents from the world of privilege and pure intellectual speculation he identified with the golden age output, inflicted terrible and certainly unfair damage to this group of authors. But treating them in an undifferentiated way, as conservative stalwarts of the established narrative and the social order, does not do justice to the great variety of authors and circumstances represented within the Detection Club. Continue reading

Ruth Rendell (1930-2015) and the meaning of exclusion


Ruth Rendell, L’Analphabète, Paris, Librairie des Champs-Élysées (Le Masque no 1532, 1978 ) new translation, 1995

Ruth Rendell, who died yesterday, was not only  one of the most distinguished English crime fiction authors, the impeccable writer of more than 60 best selling books  (25 of them featuring Inspector Wexford – often presented as a British Maigret-  and 14  written under the pen-name Barbara Vine).   She was a peer for the Labour Party in the British Parliament. Her attention for the social context and the particular settings of her novels was commanded for modernising British Crime Fiction.

Her 1977 novel A Judgement in Stone (London, Hutchinson) begins with the line :  Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.  This is a cool statement about the Crime genre, saying that it is not just about  to the whodunit.  And a  clear  indication that crime is a product of socio-cultural circumstances. Rendell  was comimtted to represent it that way.  The plot, and the social classes  antagonism it is based on (servant kills masters) is reminiscent of  a well-publicised French Criminal affair: the  savage murder of their employer by two young women, the sisters Christine and Léa Papin, two maids from Le Mans, in 1933. Continue reading