The Art of Mystery


Writing is my passion, but I have an abiding appreciation for other art forms. This weekend, I attended a breathtaking performance of Mahler’s No. 2, his “Resurrection” symphony in Denver. I’m planning how to weave this music into my second Riley novel. After all, Riley is a lover of classical music—a cultured exterminator being a character with enchanting dissonance. And Mahler’s symphony touches on the meanings of life and the mysteries of death (the latter being Riley’s bread-and-butter).

Like a conceptually complex symphony, a noir mystery with a deeply flawed anti-hero, in which the good guys don’t invariably win, allows an exploration of existentialism (make no excuses), pragmatism (“truth” being the compliment we pay to ideas that work), and stoicism (focus on what you actually control—how you choose to engage the world). So much for music, literature and philosophy—now, what about the visual arts?

I’m working with a gifted artist, Conor Mullen, on the cover design for my first Riley mystery, Poisoned Justice. Conor graduated from the University of Wyoming, and he’s been an exceptional collaborator in this venture. The aesthetic sensibility that we’re pursuing is the vivid cover art of pulp fiction that evokes sensuality and violence through darkly enchanting implication.

The folks at Pen-L publishing have been phenomenally insightful in developing the cover art. It has to immediately draw the eye and convey a sense of the story. Once the hook is set, the artwork carries the image around the spine and entices the prospective reader to peruse the back cover. There, she finds the enticing blurbs—and a distillation of the story into four words or less. If everything is working, the person is drawn to open the book and read the first line, then page 1—and, if I’ve done my job as a writer, he turns the page…

My preliminary sketches with Conor have begun to capture these essential elements. We’re now in the process of sharpening the images into a vivid digital format with bold, primary colors. Our strategy is to incorporate highly recognizable, even iconic, shapes to convey the place (San Francisco via the Golden Gate Bridge), the characters (a woman’s hand bedecked with diamonds), and the plot (a vial of poison and a silhouette of marijuana leaves).

And so, maybe Francis Bacon put it best (if somewhat unintentionally): “The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.”


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This is the personal site of Jeffrey A. Lockwood, award-winning author and University of Wyoming professor of Natural Sciences and Humanities. Lockwood is the recipient of both the Pushcart Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.

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