While gathering a collection of vintage book cover paintings for a special event in her quaint Rhode Island bookshop, Penelope discovers a spooky portrait of a beautiful woman, one who supposedly went mad, according to town gossip. Seymour, the local mailman, falls in love with the haunting image and buys the picture, refusing to part with it, even as fatal accidents befall those around it. Is the canvas cursed? Or is something more sinister at work?
For answers, Pen turns to an otherworldly source: Jack Shepard, PI. Back in the 1940s, Jack cracked a case of a killer cover artist, and (to Pen's relief) his spirit is willing to help her solve this mystery, even if he and his license did expire decades ago.
A dead man is the best fall guy in the world. He never talks back.
-Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye
Quindicott, Rhode Island
They say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but my customers did it all the time.
Most of them say they're looking for books that are well written and insightful, books filled with characters to connect with, and stories that thrill, amuse, enlighten, and entertain. Unfortunately, these intangible properties aren't things you can see from across a room, let alone place in a shop window. A striking cover, on the other hand, you can't help noticing.
During my short career in New York publishing, my more recent years as a bookseller, and my lifetime as an avid reader, I've watched book covers change with the times and the fashion.
Decades ago, painted pictures were enough to grab a reader's attention. Genre-specific cover art (you know what I mean: the clinch for romances, rockets for science fiction, cowboys and horses for Westerns, tough guys and femme fatales for detective stories) represented the work of America's finest illustrators.
As time marched on, big publishers devoured little ones, and art direction changed. Graphics and photoshopped stock images became speedy, economical alternatives to traditional painted scenes. Brand-name authors were packaged with covers displaying little more than spot art and a title beneath their prominent author moniker.
Then came the evolution of digital and print-on-demand technologies, which allowed self-published authors and pop-up micropublishers to flood the literary landscape. The big New York publishers tried to keep up, launching digital-only imprints and expanding their lists to compete, until the book business began to feel (honestly?) a little bit frantic.
In any competitive business, whenever a new idea proved successful, it was usually mimicked. Publishing was no different, but the digital age had spawned a gaming-the-system mentality not seen since the bad old days of pulp magazine. And some players were clearly less concerned about achieving a creative ideal than with the factory-like grinding out of product-and profit.
Sure, healthy competition was good. Unhealthy competition, not so much. A business could withstand only so many predatory participants, people who treated it less like a legitimate trade and more like, well, what a spirited friend of mine might call-
A racket. Is that the word you're looking for?
"Yes, Jack. If racket means caring more about money than meaning."
Money ain't a curse word, honey.
"I'm not claiming it is. We all have to make a living-"
Not all of us. Not anymore.
With a shiver, I conceded Jack was right, in more ways than one.
There was no living to be made when you weren't living. And Jack would know, since he was a ghost.
I didn't mean that he was stealthy or sneaky, or that he "ghosted" me by refusing to return my texts. I meant Jack Shepard was an actual dead man-a specter, a spirit, the departed soul of a murdered detective, gunned down on these premises in 1949 while pursuing a lead in a case.
Raymond Chandler once wrote that a dead man was the best fall guy in the world because he never talked back.
I begged to differ.
On the other hand, there was a possibility that Jack wasn't real at all. That he was no more than a figment of my fervent reader's imagination.
Any therapist would say as much. "Jack is a syndrome," they'd proclaim. The gruff, masculine voice in my head was an alter ego, my way of coping with the stresses of modern living. This hard-boiled "ghost" was merely a distillation of all the colorful characters I'd grown up reading about in my father's library, the kind of spirited soul who was brave enough to speak the blunt or off-color thoughts that I was too polite to think, let alone permit myself to say.
As far as the "stresses" of modern living, I couldn't deny I had a few. Being a widow, I'd endured my share of grief. Now a single mom, I was raising a headstrong boy, who lately enjoyed giving me some. And as a bookseller, well . . . let's just say I was still alive, though the twenty-first century sometimes seemed determined to ghost me.
"We're not dead yet!" my aunt Sadie Thornton liked to declare, usually in a Monty Python accent with a cheeky twinkle in her Yankee eye.
She and I were co-owners of a landmark bookshop in the small town of Quindicott, Rhode Island. And as I rolled out of bed one crisp autumn morning, I had the history of modern book covers on my mind for a specific reason.
Turns out, I wasn't the only one.
Yawning my way across the living room, I heard my eleven-year-old son's voice blasting out of the kitchen. He was chatting loudly on the phone, unusual for seven a.m. on a Monday. And my typically morning-grumpy child was actually giggling.
"I'm not kidding!" he squealed. "It's a book cover! Here's another one: The picture shows a gorilla . . . No, a real gorilla, like King Kong, throwing a guy into a crowd of people way down on the ground. And he's wearing a tuxedo!"
Spencer paused to hear a reply. "No, it's the monkey wearing the tuxedo. His name is funny, too. He's called the Whispering Gorilla."
I stopped in my tracks in the middle of the living room, wondering why the coffee-table book, which I'd left (where else?) on the coffee table, was no longer there. My mobile phone was present and accounted for, as were my empty teacup and black-framed glasses, but the valuable book that had been specially delivered to our shop last night-the one with my handwritten Post-it note that read Do Not Touch-was gone.
"This next cover is titled 'Batman,'" Spencer continued, "but it doesn't look like any Batman I've ever seen. There's a dead guy hanging from a rope, with his tongue sticking out. And there's a girl on the floor underneath him." His voice lowered to a whisper. "She's in her underwear. It says Spicy Mystery on top of the picture."
I grabbed my glasses, shoved them on, and headed to the kitchen, where I found Spencer still on the phone, standing at the table with his back to me. Before he knew it, I was pulling the oversize volume out of his hand.
"This is not a book for you, young man. And you know that. Who's on the phone?"
"Amy," he replied.
"Tell Amy I'm looking forward to her visit this weekend and say good-bye."
Tapping my foot, I retied my robe twice while I waited for my son to finish his call.
"Now go to school."
"It doesn't start for an hour!"
"Then have breakfast."
"I had breakfast."
"All right, then you can sit down and watch me eat mine."