A history of skulls on Murder, She Wrote book covers

I have always been interested in book cover design, especially when it comes to book series—which often strive to maintain a consistent “look”. So when I first learned about the Murder, She Wrote spin-off novels, I quickly became aware of the skull-motif that was present on many of the covers. For a while now, it had been in the back of my mind to write a post highlighting this motif. So, last week, when a blog reader had enthusiastically commented about the designs on my Murder, She Wrote Spin-Off Novels page, I decided that now would be a good time to finally put this post together. Thanks to the aforementioned commenter, I was also made aware of an old discussion section on the author Donald Bain’s website in which it was possible to find Donald Bain answering readers’ questions about the skull motif. (Note: This webpage, which used to be found at http://donaldbain.com/disc.htm, is no longer active, but historical snapshots of the page can be accessed thanks to the internet archive at archive.org.)

The first edition of ‘Gin and Daggers’.

To start, it is important to note that when the first spin-off novel was published in 1989, nobody was really sure whether it would become a series. The first book was published in hard-cover and had a very different design than readers are used to now. It was only when the second book in the series was published five years later, in 1994, that a theme was established. Each cover from then on featured Jessica Fletcher’s face. And (at least for a while) the cover also featured a cleverly incorporated skull somewhere in the background. From what I could gather, this choice was due to the art director who was first assigned to work on the series.

Additionally, the first five titles also followed the same formula by juxtaposing an alcoholic drink (Gin, Manhattans, Rum, Brandy, and Martinis) with an alliterative mystery-themed word (Daggers, Murder, Razors, Bullets, and Mayhem). While the title formula was abandoned after 5 books, the skull motif remained for at least the first 20 books in the series. Even the second edition of Gin & Daggers (which was published in 2000—around the same time as book #14 “Trick or Treachery”) got a new cover with the skull-motif.

Below, you can see the covers of the first 20 books in the series with the skulls circled.

Things changed after the publication of book #20 “Destination Murder” in 2003. According to what Donald Bain had written on his old website, a new art director took over at around this time, and was not notified of this established motif.

As a result, Book 21 “Dying to Retire” and Book 22 “A Vote for Murder” (both published in 2004) did not include a skull. And while a skull reappeared on Book 23 “The Maine Mutiny“, it was missing from Book 24 “Margaritas & Murder” published in 2005. (In fact, given the position and size of the skull on “The Maine Mutiny“, I wonder whether its appearance on the cover was merely accidental rather than a result of the art director wanting to resurrect the previously established motif.)

Looking at the covers of Books 21 through 24, we can also observe that there was a transitional period involving the portrayal of Jessica Fletcher on the cover. Books 21 and 23 included the “old” version of Jessica from the previous book covers; while Books 22 and 24 included a “new” version of Jessica (with a new expression and hairdo) that would continue to be used on the covers to this day.

During that transition period, readers contacted Donald Bain to ask what happened; and he in turn contacted the publisher, who in turn passed on the message to the new art director. This resulted in the skull motif being reintroduced again in 2006.

The transition period with respect to the cover art also marked a transition period with respect to book format. Prior to 2003, every book aside from the first book was published only in soft-cover. Beginning with the publication of “Panning for Murder” in 2007, all books began to be first published in hard cover with a soft-cover edition being published about a year later. During the transition period between 2003 and 2007, some books had a hard-cover edition while other books were only published in soft-cover.

This is important to note because the publisher believed that the skull motif should be deliberately omitted from the hard-cover editions of the books. (According to Donald Bain, he had no idea about the rationale behind this choice.) Therefore, although in the images above I have highlighted skulls on the paperback cover of Book 26, the hardcover version of “Three Strikes You’re Dead” does not have skulls on it. This is similarly true for the hardcover edition of “Panning for Murder”, and the hardcover edition for “Destination Murder” (the last book in the pre-transition period).

With the introduction of “hardcover-first” publishing, the skulls disappeared from the covers again in 2008 before reappearing in 2009.

Covers for Book 31 “Madison Avenue Shoot”, Book 32 “A Fatal Feast”, Book 33 “Nashville Noir”, and Book 34 “The Queen’s Jewels”.

Unrelated to the skull motif, but I thought I’d mention it anyway: One notable flub regarding a book cover from 2009 is that the house depicted on the cover of “A Fatal Feast” was meant to represent Jessica Fletcher’s house. The person designing the cover was not aware of Jessica’s iconic white Cabot Cove house and simply used a stock photo of a typical New England house, but fans of the series of course noticed.

Covers for Book 35 “Skating on Thin Ice”, Book 36 “The Fine Art of Murder”, Book 37 “Trouble at High Tide”, and Book 38 “Domestic Malice”.

However, it should be noted that the inclusion of the skulls in these newer publications was often much less imaginative than what readers saw on the covers of those first 20 books in the series. As can be seen in the images of the 6 covers from Books 31 through 38 above, each cover had an identical shadowy skull shape that in some cases seemed a bit of a “tacked-on” afterthought.

After the publication of the paperback edition of Book 38 “Domestic Malice” in 2013, the skulls disappeared again for the most part. In the publications since then, I have only been able to spot them in Book 42 “Death of a Blue Blood” and Book 44 “The Ghost and Mrs. Fletcher“.

Notably, “Death of a Blue Blood” has the skull added in a slightly different place depending on whether you have the softcover paperback or the mass market paperback version — which once again illustrates that the inclusion of the skulls on the newer cover was not done with forethought.

A close-up of two version of “Death of a Blue Blood“, plus “The Ghost and Mrs. Fletcher“.

It seems that “The Ghost and Mrs. Fletcher” was the last book to even attempt to include a skull on the cover. Which is just as well because personally I feel like the excitement of finding a skull on the cover wasn’t so much to do with it being “hidden” as much as it was noticing the clever way that the skull was incorporated or disguised, even if they were quite obvious.

If you want to learn more about the Murder, She Wrote spin-off novels, you can check out the following pages:

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