True Crime Covers

“Dead Dolls and Deadly Dames: The Cover Girls of American True Crime Publishing”

Lee Horsley, Lancaster University

real_detectiveAn extract from an article published in Crime Culture: Figuring Criminality in Literature and Film, ed. Bran Nicol, Patricia Pulham, and Eugene McNulty (Continuum Press in 2010)

Like the pistol in a private eye’s pocket, a dame ought to stay in her place, within easy reach of a man who knows how to handle her. In Dead Reckoning (1947), Captain ‘Rip’ Murdock (Humphrey Bogart) caricatures male fantasies for the benefit of ‘Dusty’ Chandler (Lizabeth Scott):

You know, I’ve been thinking: women ought to come capsule-sized, about four inches high. When a man goes out of an evening, he just puts her in his pocket and takes her along with him, and that way he knows exactly where she is… And…when he wants her full-sized and beautiful, he just waves his hand and there she is, full-sized… But if she starts to interrupt, he just shrinks her back to pocket-size and puts her away.

Rip’s masculine reverie about exerting total control over the sexually alluring woman “without danger of interruption” is entirely understandable: Dusty is a seductress whose steamy, corrupt sexual attractions will soon draw him into a web of deceit and death. But the femme fatale, like other transgressive women of the last half century, has shown herself ever more reluctant to shrink obediently back into a male pocket. In both transgressor-centred and investigative fiction, the defiant, independent woman has in many ways taken centre stage…Writers and critics alike have increasingly attended to the subjectivity of women who challenge male power, violate normative behaviour and talk back to a male-dominated tradition.

The iconic female figures of pulp publishing have often, however, been given little opportunity to talk back, especially when encapsulated in the lurid cover art of crime magazines and, from the late 40s on, paperback originals. Voluptuous, tantalizing and dressed to kill, they voicelessly tempted generations of men to buy the stories of their death or disgrace. Like Rip Murdoch’s pocket-sized beauty, the crime magazine cover girl is a woman who does not interrupt a man by parading her inner complexities. Objectified, silent and frozen in a moment of intense emotion, she is a very faithful embodiment of the established iconography: a man can be sure of knowing “exactly where she is”. Pulp covers are a condensation of the clichés of the dangerous and the endangered woman – categories that can seem, by implication, to be inseparable, with sexual recklessness leading directly to death. They offer bold, suggestive embodiments of the sexual dynamic that so often drives both ‘true’ and fictional crime narratives. The four-inch-high woman, first employed to sell true crime magazines from he 1930s on, spent the next several decades as one of the most marketable fantasies in American publishing history.

The covers of such true crime magazines Real Detective, Inside Detective, True Crime and Leading Detective are often designed to focus attention on the link between female transgression and female victimization. Cover art, however lacking in subtlety, characteristically presents the viewer with a compressed narrative, and one of the most familiar of these implies a sequence of guilt and retribution: victims are themselves criminalized in visual representations that combine death or extreme female endangerment with emphatic suggestions of wantonness and of self-endangering violations of social norms and constraints.

The Inside Detective story reporting the murder of one of their own models, for example, makes such a connection explicit, in an issue that disturbingly captures the confusion of life and art that constitutes an important part of the appeal of true crime journalism:

Even while the fingers of a sex-maniac were throttling the life out of her body, Veronica Gedeon’s picture appeared in the April issue of Inside Detective which could have been purchased at the newsstand a block from her home. For this illustration she posed in the semi-nude in an attitude of shame and humiliation. (Inside Detective, July 1937)

fig 1Before her death Veronica Geddon posed for pictures used to illustrate an “eerily prophetic” first-person exposé of a vice ring, and the report of her own murder is illustrated both with her “cringing and shame-stricken…last pose” and with a selection of other “fearful and violent poses” taken during her working life – a life which, the article implies, was as out of control as her semi-undress on the cover of their magazine would seem to indicate. The cover picture of this issue echoes the poses of the “real life” photographs – a self-protective gesture and an expression of fear, but also, in her half-open mouth and voluptuousness, an embodiment of alluring and destructive sexuality.

The fact that Veronica Gedeon was an actual victim as well as a “model victim” fortuitously helped Inside Detective to heighten the kind of ambiguity on which it thrived, and which pulp-realist cover art was devoted to creating. The true crime magazine combines art work and photographs, in later decades moving towards the use of photographs as cover art, and confusion is compounded by the lush style of the articles themselves (“’No flashing neon sign beckoned nocturnal adventurers to Eleanor Thompson’s honky-tonk. Like a rattlesnake’s den, it nested in darkness…”). Consistently blurring the distinction between fiction and reality, these magazines proclaim realism (in titles like All True Fact Crime) whilst at the same time offering readers the melodramatic heightening of action and the artistic intensification of erotic imagery. In its representation of women – whether they are victims or aggressors – true crime cover art aims for the frankly sensual, with seductively exposed flesh and provocative dishabille; it employs a vibrantly coloured, hyper-real style that has “the gut-level appeal of a tabloid flashgun photo, with headlines to match.”


The pulp magazine covers hugely influenced the cover art of the paperback originals that began to be produced in their hundreds at the end of the 1940s, and like these mass market crime novels they repeatedly return to images of desire and excess, helping to establish in the popular imagination the often contradictory stereotyping of female victims and transgressors at a time when women’s social and occupational roles were changing dramatically. The emasculating fear of women who were no longer confined to their traditional domestic functions, who seemed to threaten usurpation of male power, is repeatedly glimpsed in the images of deadly dames who seem all too seductive, and whose independence and resourcefulness have carried them beyond the conventional bounds of respectability.

From the 1930s on, one of the most powerful images of the woman out of control is the gangster’s moll. Aggressive broads shooting .45s or even submachine guns, or stamping with spiked heels on a man’s hand, stride on to the covers of true crime magazines and of their fictional contemporaries like Black Mask and Dime Detective. In both the “real” and fictional worlds portrayed, these are women characterised by a paradoxical combination of “masculine” and “feminine” traits – “potent” women, appropriating masculine powers, alternately threatening the male and arousing his desire….

fig 3As with representations of the American gangster himself, these are images that offer the viewer the double satisfaction of vicarious participation in gangland vice and of the moral disapproval of criminals popularly perceived as “the root of evil”, with the frisson of danger generally contained within a retributive frame. The image itself, however, seems indestructible, and the gangster’s moll, holding either a smoking gun or a smoking cigarette and more than a match for the men who try to take her on, is one of the most durable figures on the early true crime covers: a raven-haired beauty in a low-cut red dress holding a gun on the cover of Real Detective, for example, in January 1933 (Fig 3); or her twin sister disposing of a smoking gun on the cover of American Detective in July 1936…

Images of the violent women of gangland are obviously very closely related to – sometimes indistinguishable from – images of “ordinary” women who have gone to the bad. The femme fatale, the most familiar figure on the crime fiction covers of the 1950s, emerges in the pulp magazines at about the same time as does the gangster’s moll and is repeated with countless minor variations, the immodest icon for a period during which sex increasingly became one of the major ingredients of mass market publishing. This is the decade that saw the beginning, both in film and pulp literature, of a great outpouring of femme fatale plots, in which an apparently “normal” woman turns out to be “unnaturally” sexual, aggressive, and ultimately death-dealing – Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity or Mrs Grayle in Murder, My Sweet (Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely). When she belongs outside the world of organised crime, the hard-bitten, capable woman, exceeding the structures of social control, is associated with more wide-spread degenerative forces at work in the whole of the society and culture. On the make, but not explicable as part of a criminal subculture, she exploits her newly won freedoms in the social and economic spheres to subvert the established hierarchies in ways that are “inappropriate, deviant…and unlawful.” The elements of this image constitute a kind of visual shorthand for torrid attraction, danger, corruption. Even more than the gangster’s moll, it is an image associated with an explicitly erotic iconography: this is a sexual predator drawing in men who suffer loss of control and destabilisation of identity…

As in film noir, the corruption of the femme fatale is dangerous to the woman herself as well as to her male victim. A Special Detective (September 1948) cover, for example, on which an obviously sinful woman displays her undergarments and her ample cleavage, frames the main picture by a warning and an additional picture: a dead woman sprawls as the “final clause” to a sentence that starts, “All her schemes, all her pretended passion, all the men she had loved and cheated…They all led the gorgeous two-timing Beauty to this…” Especially once her untrammeled sexuality has been equated with prostitution, the femme fatale seems likely to pay the ultimate penalty for her excessive desires, her sexuality and her deceptiveness.

fig 5It is a short step from such a narrative of “just deserts” to that most ambiguous and controversial of all true crime cover images, the female victim. The style of pulp cover art itself accentuates one of the most recurrent themes in the pulp fiction and true crime representation of the woman as victim: she was asking for it. True crime covers almost invariably stress the woman’s sexual allure, and the combination of this with her victimisation implies that the woman has invited her fate by making herself too available: like the hapless Veronica Gedeon, female victims have flaunted themselves, tempting men to acts of violation and violence. The cover of the July 1940 issue of Real Detective, for example, which represents a bound girl about to be pushed under the water by a male hand, shows the (presumably doomed) girl in a pose as sensual as that of the standard “dangerous woman” cover, her semi-reclining torso floating towards the viewer, her blonde curls spread out, her mouth open in what, under other circumstances, would be a sexually provocative expression. Countless other true crime covers manipulate this sort of sado-masochistic image: America’s Detective Annual (1944) portrays a bound woman, her scanty black negligee ripped, her pose and expression again a mixture of the helpless and the provocative; Crime Detective, April 1943, depicts a very phallic dagger protruding from a scarlet cushion, whilst the girl herself is caught in a pose somewhere between fright and submission.

The covers representing women as victims are those which change in the most problematic ways over the next few decades. From the 1950s on there is a tendency for the sadistic elements in these pictures to become more explicit. From very stylised, fairly minimal indications of impending death, the covers move to a much more direct representation of the actual process of inflicting physical harm: so, for example, an early 1950s magazine, the Homicide issue of August 1951, depicts a highly sexualised struggle, as the ‘Lethal Lover for the Bad Girl’ grips an anguished-looking woman in a tense, violent encounter that is far more visceral than the cover images of female victims in earlier decades; Detective World, May 1953, shows a bound woman with a male hand reaching into the picture, but on this occasion to burn the woman with a smouldering cigarette; the True Police Yearbook (volume 1, 1953) presents another bound woman, far more disheveled than earlier female victims tended to be, and in an awkward enough posture to suggest that she really is a “tortured beauty on the murder rack” who “paid for the secret locked behind her lips”.

fig 6It is in covers of this sort that a confusion between life and (photographic) art began to raise serious questions in the public mind about the possible influence of such images on potential perpetrators of actual crimes. In the true crime magazines of the 1960s through the 1980s, the process of heightening the depiction of the sadistic torture of a female victim was carried much further, its disturbing impact increased by the use of photos rather than art work and by a growing tendency to bring the deviant male himself into the cover vignette. Startling Detective, in July 1965, for example, presents the standard earlier image of the bound woman whose charms are fairly fully displayed, but accompanies this by cover blurbs that focus attention on sexual sadism, which becomes one of the recurrent themes of these later covers (“Sex and the Sadist Criminal: the shocking documented study of the ecstasies that some human beings find in the infliction of pain!”). Best True Fact Detective, March 1978, has a photograph of a girl held by a man who, though mostly out of frame, is a much more threatening presence than the disembodied hands of earlier covers: tightly bound, a hand covering her mouth, and a large pair of scissors about to descend on her, the woman is posed next to the caption “Slaughter of the Virgin Coeds” – the plural here suggesting a serial killer. The serial killer becomes, as in fiction and true crime reporting generally, an increasingly familiar figure during this period. Inside Detective, in November 1974, for example, prints a photograph depicting a savage-looking man pursuing a clearly terrified woman up a stairway – a “Marine Peeping-Tom” who “cut her up just like he did those girlie photos”; Front Page, in July 1979, like many earlier covers, depicts a strangling, but here with a vicious male face just entering the picture from above, and a caption that draws the reader’s attention to acts of sadistic “overkill”, offering a catalogue of violations of the woman’s body: “strangled, beaten, shot and abused”.

This turn towards the representation of the violence of the male sexual sadist introduces a kind of ambiguity far more troubling than those to be found in the earlier decades of true crime publishing. Sensationalized violence is combined with a marked eroticisation of the sufferings of the female victims. It was a trend that led ultimately to a movement away from the publication of female victim covers, after worries were voiced (for example, by the forensic pathologist Park Dietz) about the effects of the pornography of violence on any member of the male readership who, after looking at the true crime cover’s mixture of reality and fantasy, might be prompted to seek gratification “through actual, not fantasized, brutality.”

By this time, adding to the discomfort such images provoked, there had been an almost complete shift from artistic representation to photographic realism. The boldly stylised covers of mid-century pulp publishing worked by provocative implication rather than explicit representation. The staged ‘true crime photos’ that gradually replaced the artwork of earlier decades were obviously still some distance from actual photographs of crime and its consequences, but like true crime photography could easily be accused of exploiting the medium’s capacity for shocking spectacle and of objectifying the victims of crime in an even more thoroughgoing way than the pulp iconography of earlier decades, particularly as multiple murder grew to be the most saleable of all true crime topics. As David Schmid argues in a Blackwell Companion article, the serial killer is perennially in demand in a form of publishing that relies on an “unstable combination of attraction and repulsion”, generated by a mixture of crime, sex and violence that is “very visceral” – “the more gruesome and grotesque the better.” In a photograph like the one illustrating the “Slaughter of the Virgin Coeds” (above), the link between sexual allure and violence is impossible to miss: the female victim is marked out as a temptress (wearing a come-hither red dress, black nylons revealed as the dress is pulled up), an object of desire who stands accused of having invited the fate that befalls her; at the same time, as one of many victims, her individual agency is very fully erased. The strong, independent femme fatale of earlier cover art has little place on the photographic covers of later decades, increasingly supplanted by women who are entirely powerless but nevertheless culpable – as the pull quote proclaims on the Police Detective cover of March 1962, alongside a scantily clad dead body hanging out of a car seat, “That Dame was a Nympho!”

Ranging through half a century of pulp covers, we form a vivid impression of the stereotypical women who have corrupted, connived, killed and been killed in both ‘true’ and fictional crime publications. They are flashily effective embodiments of some very tenacious judgments, and women crime writers, in particular, have played against these pop cultural images in their explorations of female identity under pressure. From the 1940s on – for example, in Margaret Millar’s The Iron Gates (1945) – the psychological turmoil of the female transgressor has been represented and contrasted with the face she makes up for her mirror and the world. In the twenty-first century, writers like Megan Abbott have created complex, compelling female protagonists who conform to the look of the clichéd femme fatale: Abbott’s novels, published with bold pulp covers by Simon & Schuster’s Pocket Books, are especially striking in their ability to draw attention simultaneously to the durability of the image and the inner contradictions underlying female performance and empowerment. And it is not, of course, only women capable of talking back who have been given a strong presence in contemporary crime fiction. Investigative fiction has developed a tendency to take us – literally – inside the completely disempowered victims represented on later true crime covers, most obviously in the hugely popular contemporary procedural novels focusing on the work of the forensic pathologist. Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs and others structure their narratives around investigations of the deaths and identities of the serial killer’s (most often female) victims, confronting readers with the reality of the dead body and enabling them, as the novels reach their resolutions, to understand the perspective of the killer’s prey. These intense inner explorations derive some of their impact from the wide currency of superficial but memorable oversimplifications like those of pulp cover art. The aim of many female-authored, female-centred crime novels over the last several decades has been to recapture the subjectivity and restore the experience of both transgressors and victims. Their detailed, sympathetic representations of deviant and damaged female identities are given point by their oppositional nature – by their implicit challenge to one-dimensional images of female guilt, subjection and transgression.

Copyright © 2009 Lee Horsley



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