Shrouded in Mysteries

A Conversation with Randal S. Brandt

Randal Brandt, the head of cataloging in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, talks with Choice about Shrouded in Mysteries, an online exhibit that provides a chronological history of the Golden Gate Bridge’s depiction on mystery novel covers. The collection includes covers that date back to 1940, exploring the Golden Gate Bridge’s ascent to an iconic San Francisco landmark.

How would you describe the collection to a perfect stranger?

“Shrouded in Mysteries” is an online exhibit that examines and celebrates the use of the image of the Golden Gate Bridge on the covers of mystery, detective, and crime novels. It was published in 2012 to honor the 75th anniversary of the official opening of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937. The exhibit spans the years 1940 through 2012, beginning with Murder Loves Company, the earliest known depiction of the bridge—albeit quite abstract—on a mystery novel cover. The exhibit is presented chronologically, with selected covers highlighted and the cover artists and designers identified when possible. It also includes a checklist of 133 titles featuring the bridge on their covers.

Who is the intended audience of the Shrouded in Mysteries collection? How do you envision undergraduates or the general public using it?

Hell & Gone by Duane Swierczynski book cover. Woman looking at viewer with Golden Gate bridge in background.
Hell & Gone by Duane Swierczynski; Mulholland Books, 2011; Cover design: Allison Warner; Cover illustration: Michael Gillette.

The audience of the exhibit could be a variety of people. I can envision it being of interest to those studying art history, popular culture, marketing, local history, graphic design, genre fiction, or book arts.

How did this collection come about? Were you more interested in the history of the Golden Gate Bridge or mystery novels?

I was definitely more interested in mystery novels. I’ve been maintaining the Golden Gate Mysteries online bibliography for years now, and had begun to notice that the bridge was appearing on the covers of a large number of books. At some point, I began taking note of books with the bridge on the cover—not really with any big plan in mind for an exhibit like this, just out of curiosity. When the 75th anniversary of the bridge opening was nearing, there was quite a bit of activity going on in the Bay Area around the planned celebrations, so I decided this would be a great time to put my research to use.

However, in a bit of a coincidence, the very first exhibit I ever worked on was back in early 2000 when I was the associate librarian at the Water Resources Center Archives at UC Berkeley. That exhibit was called “Bridging the Bay: Bridging the Campus”, an exploration of all of the bridges in San Francisco Bay. I included a couple of popular books featuring the Golden Gate Bridge on the covers in that exhibit, which no doubt planted the seed in my mind for a closer look at this aspect of the bridge’s place in the popular imagination.

What drew you to mystery novels? Have you read most of the books in this collection?

Murder for the Holidays by Howard Rigsby book cover. Close-up of half a woman's face, Golden Gate bridge in backgound.
Murder for the Holidays by Howard Rigsby; William Morrow & Co., 1951; Cover design: Unknown.

I started reading mysteries as a kid. My mom would check out Agatha Christie novels from the public library and then pass them along to me. I also ran through the library’s collection of James Bond novels. I came back to reading mysteries as an adult, and got particularly interested in the concept of place or setting in mystery fiction. As a librarian in the San Francisco Bay Area, it was just a natural next step for me to start compiling a list of mystery novels set in the Bay Area. I began Golden Gate Mysteries around 2003, and at the last count the list contained over 2,500 titles. So, no, I have not read them all!

This collection contains books from 1940 all the way to 2012. What was the process of searching for and selecting the books? Were there any challenges?

As I mentioned above, at some point I started keeping track of books that had the Golden Gate Bridge on the cover. So, that was my starting point. After that it was pretty much just hunting in the dark. I have a friend who is a great collector of San Francisco mysteries, so I enlisted his aid in finding covers—and he did not disappoint. The covers that are included in the exhibit were selected based on date of publication (I wanted to represent as broad a spectrum of time as possible) and the quality of the design. I like that the exhibit includes everything from abstract designs to full-color photography. Since I could not include every cover in the exhibit, I also added the checklist at the end. I continued to add titles to the checklist for a few years after the exhibit “closed,” as I found more covers.

Murder Loves Company by John Mersereau book cover. Two pairs of legs lying down with Golden Gate bridge in background.
Murder Loves Company by John Mersereau; J.B. Lippincott, 1940; Cover design: Bevans.

What are some of the most noticeable changes in cover designs over the past 70 years? Do you have a favorite cover design or book from the collection?

The biggest change in book cover design during the time period of this exhibit is the shift from hand-painted original artwork to photographs and digital art as the basis for the design. Probably my favorite cover in the exhibit is the earliest one, Murder Loves Company. The book was published in 1940, just a couple of years after the bridge opened, and features an abstract bridge in the background. Ironically, the central action of the novel takes place on Treasure Island during the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition, which, of course, was reached by the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Indeed, a major plot development in the novel actually occurs on the Bay Bridge, demonstrating that even in the infancy of the Bay’s two bridges, it was the Golden Gate Bridge that was quickly developing into the iconic image of the region.

This collection is no longer active, but is now archived. What is the archival process? Is there a physical collection of the books somewhere, or does it only exist as a digital exhibit?

Death Wish Green by Frances Crane book cover. Back and white paining of Golden Gate bridge. Car headlights illuminate on the bridge.
Death Wish Green by Frances Crane; Random House, 1960; Cover design: Unknown.

The web exhibit has been archived using Archive-It, which is a subscription web archiving service of the Internet Archive. The UC Berkeley Libraries and the Bancroft Library, in particular, use Archive-It to preserve websites of organizations and individuals whose records we collect.

Many of the books featured in the exhibit are from the California Detective Fiction Collection at the Bancroft Library. The metadata for each image includes information on the source of the image, with a call number for those books held in the library.

In your introduction to the collection, you wrote how the Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937, and mystery novels began featuring it on their covers as early as 1940. After looking at so many mystery novels, do you have an answer for why they displayed the Golden Gate Bridge over other popular landmarks like Coit Tower or the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge? Why do you think the Golden Gate Bridge is such an iconic structure in the mystery genre?

The Grinning Gismo by Samuel W. Taylor book cover. Black and white. Underside angle of Golden Gate bridge. Yellow and red font colors.
The Grinning Gismo by Samuel W. Taylor; Hodder and Stoughton, 1952; Cover design: Unknown.

I think the image of the Golden Gate Bridge is used on book covers for the same reason that it appears on so many other items. It simply is the iconic image of San Francisco and the Bay Area. Go to any souvenir shop in Fisherman’s Wharf and you’ll be simply overwhelmed by Golden Gate Bridge images, from postcards to shot glasses to t-shirts to keychains, you name it. Additionally, the actual bridge is both an engineering and design marvel. With its two majestic towers, stunning Art Deco design, and brilliant “international orange” color, no other structure in the area can match it. When a publisher puts the bridge on the cover of a book, the potential reader knows immediately that this is a San Francisco story. It also has a dark past, from the eleven bridge workers who died during its construction (although many more were saved by the engineers’ ingenious safety netting—those who survived a fall into the nets called themselves members of the “Halfway to Hell Club”) to the many individuals who have tragically chosen to use the bridge to take their own lives. And, given that it is often shrouded in the thick fog coming through the Golden Gate, it is a singular image that simultaneously evokes beauty, majesty, mystery, danger, and death.

Randal S. Brandt headshot

About the interviewee:

Randal S. Brandt serves as the head of cataloging in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, as well as the curator of the California Detective Fiction Collection. Before Bancroft, he was part of several special collections’ teams, including the Water Resources Center Archives, the California Indian Library Collections in the Hearst Museum of Anthropology, and the California Maps Project. Since 2003, he has been a member of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries, serving as chair of the Bibliographic Standards Committee from 2007 to 2008. Since 2009, he has been on the faculty of the California Rare Book School, teaching a course on rare book cataloging. Mystery novels have always been of great interest to him, evidenced by his work on this collection and Golden Gate Mysteries , an additional bibliography of crime and mystery fiction set in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Visit the Shrouded in Mysteries website to learn more.

This interview was conducted by Grace Lemon. She is a junior at Northwestern University and an editorial intern at Choice.