A noir-style photograph of an old-fashioned telephone

Fatal Woman, The Origin of Evil, and other tantalising tales

17 February 2020
They may sell for 30 cents at the local op shop, but classic crime books - especially their cover art - warrant appreciation. Criminologist and artist Dr Carolyn McKay outlines their appeal.

There has long been a thirst for cheap, mass-produced depictions of violence and crime narratives, from 18th century crime ‘broadsides’ sold at public executions to 19th century ‘penny dreadfuls’.

The University of Sydney’s Fisher Library is not immune to their charms: Rare Books and Special Collections holds an extensive collection of detective fiction, encompassing 20th century crime novels as well as pulp fiction[i] series. Now, for the first time, some of these books are on display.

Lurid: Crime Paperbacks and Pulp Fiction showcases works by the likes of Raymond Chandler and Patricia Highsmith – focusing on their cover designs. The mid-century, green-saturated period of Penguin crime literature paperbacks, for instance, demonstrates the ‘Marber Grid’, with two-thirds of the layout allowing for striking modernist illustration and bold graphic design.


Mid-century, green-saturated Penguin crime literature paperbacks

Penguin classics that demonstrate the 'Marber Grid' layout. 


“There is power in the simplicity of these designs with their limited colour palette, elements of photomontage, collage, drawing and geometric pattern, and use of sans serif font,” exhibition co-curator Dr Carolyn McKay said.

The Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director, Sydney Institute of Criminology at Sydney Law School continued: “At the other extreme of the literary spectrum, there are the garish, titillating and often misogynistic designs that adorn pulp fiction covers.

“The racy titles and compositional elements of femmes fatales and wanton dames, gangsters and gumshoes, and occasional homoerotic imagery, were designed to catch the eyes of disposable sleaze readers (and criminologists).”

Other notable titles in the exhibit include:

  • Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library
  • Alan Geoffrey Yates’s detective series, written under his nom de plume Carter Brown
  • Glen Chase’s ‘Sexecutioner’ series featuring Cherry Delight, ‘the world’s sexiest crimefighter’
Grid featuring classic works of pulp fiction.

A selection of titles on display. 


Dr McKay’s research has two strands: technology and the law, and visual criminology.

Lurid, which she curated with Julie Price, Liaison Librarian, Rare Books and Special Collections, harnesses the latter, including her skills as a visual artist, to explore our ongoing obsession with representations of criminality.

Lurid: Crime Paperbacks and Pulp Fiction runs from 17 February to 20 June 2020. It will be located on level 3 of Fisher Library and in the SciTech Library at the University of Sydney, and is free and open to the public.

[i] Pulp fiction refers to fast-paced, compelling stories, printed on low quality paper, that was popular in the 1930s and 40s.  

Header image: Donald Edgar via Unsplash.

Loren Smith

Assistant Media Adviser (Humanities)

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