Friday, March 27, 2009

Tom Adams for Agatha Christie - Illustrated Death

One of my all time favourite series of book cover art are the paintings that Tom Adams created for the Fontana paperback versions of Agatha Christie novels from the early 60’s to the beginning of the 80’s. From this association he has become one of the most famous cover artists of our time, with his illustrations I am sure contributing to the sale of the books.

Whereas any artist would have depicted scenes of the obvious when illustrating a crime novel Tom Adams departed from the norm and would tease the public with seemingly obscure references to the novel contained within the cover. A vase of dead violets in ‘A Murder is Announced’, oversized insects that tricked the eye such as the bee on the cover of ‘Death in the Clouds’, lovers, a gun and bi-plane in ‘Peril at End House’.

Occasionally the blood would be spilled and we would see a partial reference to the crime committed or a body. On the other hand he was quite free in the inclusion of animals that had met with unfortunate fates. A weasel impaled on a paper knife in ‘Cards on the Table’ an owl that meets the same fate in ‘Endless Night’ a decaying fish on the cover of ‘Towards Zero’. Very rarely was violence depicted, only the aftermath. In one of the most thought provoking covers we see the white dove of justice picking out the eyes of a black crow for ‘Ordeal by Innocence’.

If Mrs. Christie’s use of nursery rhyme titles was not sinister enough for the titles of some of her novels, coupled with the corresponding Adam’s illustration they could be downright disturbing. ‘A Pocket full of Rye’ with the decaying bird super imposed on a background depicting the song, ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’ using the same treatment, however this time with a hypodermic syringe and scattered gemstones, and then one of the most unsettling; a golliwog hanging from a blood stained stake with a rather disquieting looking lizard in the background for ‘Ten Little Niggers’.

Numerous times we would see the weapon used or the means of how a murder was committed. Who now can drink champagne from a champagne glass such as the one depicted on the cover of ‘Sparkling Cyanide’ without some form of second thought?

The covers are a rich visual reference that have not been equaled or surpassed by any other artist or stylist who has been given the task. The paintings are highly detailed vignettes of the story, painted with sensitivity to the written word. Occasionally he blunders on the details but these blunders do not detract from the story within.

They say ‘never judge a book by the cover’ well, in this case do! You won’t be disappointed. Even if you dont read the books, the covers will definitely provoke some kind of thought.


  1. You may be interested in my new facebook group about Tom Adams -

  2. Hi Felix,

    I have always been a big fan of Tom Adams' covers. Your facebook page is great! Many thanks


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