Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Mara and the Dame: The Mid-Seventies Agatha Christie paperback cover art by Mara McAfee

Mara McAfee cover art for Agatha Christie's
Hickory Dickory Death, aka Hickory Dickory Dock
one of the covers she did for Pocket paperback editions
of Christie detective novels in the 1970s

I will always associate Agatha Christie mysteries with paperbacks.  It probably wasn't until the dawn of the 21st century that I ever even owned a Christie mystery in hardcover.  I started buying Christie Pocket pbs with my own "pocket" money waaay back in the Seventies, before I was even a teenager.  And, frankly, the art on those pbs was much nicer than the dreck which Dodd, Mead and the Collins had been putting out on Christie hardbacks for some time.  (Sorry, Collins, at least you have done much better with Christie hardbacks over the last 25 years!)

I have already written on the blog about the late, great Tom Adams (1926-2019) and the Agatha Christie covers which he did for Pocket.  (He also did weirder, truly surreal, ones for English pb publisher Fontana--see John Curran's book Tom Adams Uncovered.) 

So today, on the occasion of Dame Agatha's 131st birthday, I would like to write about the unheralded woman artist whose work graced Christie Pocket pb covers in the mid-Seventies: Mara McAfee.  I remember this artwork so well from when I was reading Christie pbs in the late Seventies in junior high school in Alabama.  

aka Sparkling Cyanide
cover art by Mara McAfee

Pictured below and to the left are five Christie pbs with McAfee cover art which Pocket issued in December 1975, just weeks before the Queen of Crime's death at the age of 85 and about a year after the release of the hugely successful film adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express (1974), which earlier that year had received six Oscar nominations, winning one (for Ingrid Bergman's memorable supporting performance as a conscience-stricken Swedish missionary--she also won the supporting actress BAFTA). 

You can see how the late Albert Finney's depiction of Poirot influenced McAfee's rendering of the great Belgian detective.  Her Miss Marple is less successful, I think, although Joan Hickson's Eighties portrayal of Miss Marple occupies the space in my head, so I may be unfairly biased.

On the whole, however, I think these are striking and vivid depictions of the murder world of Christie.  All these years, though, it never occurred to me, until recently, to look up information on the obviously talented artist who drew them.  

It turns out that Mara McAfee, who was born in 1929 and died much too young in 1984, got her start as a film and television actress and dancer in the 1950s.  Often she was uncredited in her films, as in the landmark brutal Fifties noir Kiss Me Deadly, where she plays the beatific, silent nurse looking down upon the stricken Mike Hammer.  She also had parts in the genre films Women's Prison--starring Ida Lupino, Jan Sterling, Audrey Totter and Phyllis Thaxter (Wow!)--and Las Vegas Shakedown (she actually gets credited in that one), both also from '55.  

Mara McAfee with Dennis O'Keefe in Las Vegas Shakedown (1955)

Mara McAfee as the briefly appearing beatific nurse in Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

McAfee was an attractive and, well, busty brunette, but interestingly she only acted to finance her way through art school.  She had no high opinion of her thespianic talent but she said she did have brass.

Mara McAfeee

As an artist she became best known in the Seventies for her sardonic and satirical artwork for National Lampoon, where she frequently sent up Normal Rockwell's wholesome depictions of Americana.  You can see some of these pieces below.  So, all in all, she was quite an interesting choice for Agatha Christie covers by Pocket, and reflective of just how highly Christie was esteemed.  (McAfee did Pocket covers for mainstream novelists as well.)  

Mara McAfee was smart, sexy and funny--just like Agatha!  So happy 131st, Agatha--and let's not forget Mara McAfee's 92nd on November 27.

Enjoy this sampling of MM's work for National Lampoon and some of her book covers for other writers, and even a piece of film poster art.  Think Norma Rockwell with a heap of Norma Desmond.

yes, Brooke Shields

cover art for Joan Aiken's Dark Interval
Yes, it's Gothic but our heroine is more fashionably dressed this time,
in orange cape and teal slacks rather than a filmy white nightgown

Wuthering High School

poster art for Bill Murray film Meatballs (1979)


  1. Re Miss Marple

    I think Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple was meant. The Mirror Cracked was made in

    Chris Wallace

    1. It does look more like her, but these depictions came out before that movie. Maybe they inspired Lansbury’s Marple look! She’s also somewhat like Helen Hayes from the Miss Marple films on American television, but those were in the Eighties.

  2. Nostalgic to see these McAfee covers after many years - they made me smile. When I was a teen reading Agatha Christie in the 70s, these were the versions I had including TMoRA, AMiA, TDIwM and SC. Shame I don't have those old paperbacks now, but thanks for sharing them here.

    1. Oh, total nostalgia trip for me here too. I read my first Aga pbs in 1974, but when I was buying them in the late 70s these were some of the very eds I bought. I had the Roger Ackroyd one and Murder with Mirrors as they called it in the Us then and Murder Is Announced. Even the National Lampoon covers made me feel nostalgic, they really got the vibes of the late 70s when I was in middle school reading Christie. There was a girl Alison who sat in front of me in Pre-Algebra who read Christie too, but she only liked the books with at least two murders. Preferable three or more!

  3. Typo alert - it was Audrey Totter, not Trotter in Women's Prison.

  4. Thank-you so much for posting these Agatha covers. It brought back memories. I remember at age 11 and looking for a book to read on a plane for my first trip to Disney with my family. I remember seeing an Agatha Christie display at our local Woolworth's. I begged my mom to buy Funerals Are Fatal for me. It launched me onto a lifelong addiction to Christie. Woolworth's kept adding and subtracting Agathas, which continued to provide a large selection. Thanks again for the post.

    1. You're welcome. You sound a lot like me here. I remember getting books at Sears and Gayfer's and probably did at Woolworth's too! My first experience with pbs was with Christie. Instant nostalgia for my childhood in the 70s.

  5. One thing I hated about 1970's paperbacks were those cardboard advertisements that were bound in the middle of the books. I was looking thru a 1972 Pocket edition of 'A Passenger to Frankfurt' last night and found three ads in the book! One for a mystery book guild, McCall's magazine and a cigarette one.

    1. Oh, they loved cigarette ads! I always used to tear those things out, but maybe today they have nostalgia appeal.