Cover of 'The Secret History'
© Financial Times

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, Alfred A Knopf, 1992, cover by Chip Kidd & Barbara de Wilde

“Forceful, cerebral and impeccably controlled” was how New York Times critic, Michiko Kakutani, described Donna Tartt’s 1992 debut.

The Secret History tells the story of a group of classics students at college in New England who kill a local farmer during a Dionysian orgy and go on to plot a fellow student’s murder. From the first page the crime is clear, what Tartt is most interested in is how her characters arrive at the murder, turning a whodunit into a whydunnit.

Barbara de Wilde and Chip Kidd’s unique – and brave – cover features a close-up of a classical statue, and is wrapped not in a regular paper dust jacket, but a clear acetate sheath on which the title, blurb and author photograph are printed in purple. It seems to speak to the transparency of plot.

Kidd, Knopf’s art director, nixes this theory. “The idea came from antiquarian booksellers, who wrap their volumes in acetate to protect them. Because so much of the content of the book relies on the study of Ancient Greece, this made sense to us.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tartt herself was “very resistant” to the idea. It’s hard enough being a debut novelist without also being what Kidd calls “a guinea pig” for an untried idea.

It was thanks to the book’s editor Gary Fisketjon and publisher Sonny Mehta that the cover got beyond the draft. They championed the groundbreaking design and Tartt eventually agreed. While the novel itself would undoubtedly have sold well thanks to a marketing push and increased print run, the unusual cover helped it top the bestseller charts.

Almost 19 years after its publication, The Secret History has become a modern classic, but the jacket has fared less well. “It’s kind of a practical disaster,” says Kidd of the easily marked acetate. He has not produced a clear cover for a novel since, but he’s still fond of the design, which in its unique, bold and unusual way perfectly captured the essence of Tartt’s debut.

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