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The Job of the Artist

Murder on the Fly, the second installment of the “Riley the Exterminator” mystery series, is in the process of editing and production. And so I’m sharing with you the “working” cover for the book. Once again, I’m collaborating with Conor Mullen, and I continue to be amazed at how a talented artist can go from a list of inchoate ideas to a vivid product that captures the essence of an author’s imagination.

For Murder on the Fly, I wanted the cover to evoke four qualities. First, I wanted the artwork to be aesthetically continuous with Poisoned Justice. We were after the same graphic starkness, the single color palate, and sense of foreboding. I had originally sought a font to complement the exotic elements of the story, but the publisher convinced me that a consistent font is part of a series’ brand, so the font you see in this draft will be changed to that of the first book.

Second, I hoped that the cover would elicit San Francisco using a different motif than the first cover featuring the Golden Gate Bridge. In the Riley series, the setting interacts with the characters (and provides a rich context for food and drink, as some readers have noted). Conor tapped into the architecture and topography of the city—all coming together with the iconic Transamerica Pyramid as a focal point. ​​

Third, I wanted the cover to evoke anxiety, even dread—a sense that something has gone weirdly wrong. We played around with two color schemes—sunset orange and nighttime blue—and settled on the latter as the evening hours both mask and imbue danger. The key was the inclusion of helicopters spraying chemicals over the city with a feel of “Apocalpyse Now” (the 1979 film that resonates with the time-frame of the book). Low-flying helicopters and chemical spraying are never good news.

Fourth, Murder on the Fly explores the nature of boundaries and invasions. When do people—or insects—belong in a given place? Who are the intruders in a shifting world? How can immigrants unsettle familiar locales and newly arrived insects threaten established landscapes? What do we do about unwanted newcomers? The lights glowing in the houses contrast with the ominous arrival of helicopters violating domestic tranquility.​​

As with the cover of Poisoned Justice, I’ll quote Francis Bacon: “The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.”

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