Writers are individuals just like everybody else. They have individual mannerisms, traits and habits; so does their work. That makes sense too since writers’ personalities come through in different ways in what they write. Sometimes those individual traits are as distinctive as a fingerprint or a signature, and it’s interesting to see those patterns; they’re there if you look for them.
For example, several of Agatha Christie’s novels refer to nursery and childhood rhymes. There’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), for instance. That title refers to a rhyme of course; it also has another meaning that comes out as the story unfolds. The same is true of Hickory, Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory, Dickory Death). Not only is that the title of a children’s rhyme, but it also makes reference to Hickory Road, home to a student hostel where much of the action in this novel takes place. And then there’s A Pocketful of Rye, in which Miss Marple investigates the murder of wealthy Rex Fortescue. The title of course refers to the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence, but it also refers to the only clue in this murder – the fact that one of Fortescue’s pockets is found full of rye. There are other examples too in Christie’s work in which the title refers both to a rhyme, song or poem and to a clue or plot point.
Other authors too, such as John D. MacDonald and Sue Grafton, have used “title patterns” as well. Grafton fans know that the novels in her series featuring private investigator Kinsey Millhone have been titled in alphabetical order from A is for Alibi to (thus far) V is for Vengeance. Each title in this series also refers to something having to do with crime. Here, from a 1996 interview with Grafton , is her explanation for that choice:
“I was always fascinated by mysteries that had linking or related titles…One day I was reading The Gashlycrumb Tinies, a book of cartoons by Edward Gorey, which is a series of pen and ink drawings of little Victorian children “done in” by various means…”A is for Amy who fell down the stairs…B is for Basil assaulted by Bears…C is for Clara who wasted away,” etc…A cartoon light bulb formed above my head and I thought to myself, “Gee, why couldn’t you do a series of novels based on the alphabet?” At that point, I sat down and made an alphabetical list of all the crime related words I could think of. So here I am now…probably tied up until the year 2015 or so.”
It’s also worth mentioning that each crime-related word in Grafton’s titles has something to do with a theme in the novel itself. Ms. Grafton, we’re W is for Waiting for your next release.
In this interview Grafton mentions two other authors John D. MacDonald and Harry Kemelman, who each had a linking pattern with their titles. MacDonald of course is best known for his series featuring “salvage consultant” Travis McGee. Each of those novels has the name of a colour in the title. Kemelman wrote the Rabbi David Small series, each title of which includes the name of a day of the week.
Martin Edwards’ Lake District novels feature Oxford historian Daniel Kind and DCI Hannah Scarlett. Each novel in the series (of which there are five thus far) has as a focus a different place in the Lake District. And each of the places mentioned in the Lake District titles is the scene of the discovery of a body, a murder or some other event critical to the story.
Of course, not all authors’ patterns are stated directly in the titles, but they’re often still there. For instance, each novel in Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series begins in the morning. Here, for instance, are the first sentences in the second in that series Heavenly Pleasures:
“Have I told you how I feel about four in the morning? Anguish, misery, existential dread, stubbing toe on cat?
Oh, I have. Right, then. Take it as read, then, that I rose, stretched, yawned, washed, and stuffed my XXL body into size XXXL trackies that have seen better years, as indeed have I.”
Greenwood’s not the only one who integrates this pattern into her work. Andrea Camilleri’s novels featuring Inspector Salvo Montalbano begin in the morning too. Here are the first few sentences of The Snack Thief, in which Montalbano and his team investigate an elevator murder and the shooting of a Tunisian fisherman who happened to be on an Italian fishing boat when he was killed:
“He woke up in a bad way. The sheets, during the sweaty, restless sleep that had followed his wolfing down three pounds of sardines a beccafico the previous evening, had wound themselves tightly round his body, making him feel like a mummy.”
Fans of this series will know that all too often, Montalbano’s sleep is interrupted when he’s called to the scene of a crime.
Some authors choose more subtle ways to leave, if you will, their signatures on their novels. For instance, Elizabeth Spann Craig’s novels include what you might call running jokes or themes. In Delicious and Suspicious, the first of her Memphis Barbecue series, we meet Lulu Taylor, owner of Aunt Pat’s Barbecue, Taylor and her family members are drawn into a murder investigation when food critic Rebecca Adrian is poisoned just hours after eating at Aunt Pat’s. Three of Aunt Pat’s “regulars” are Big Ben, Morty and Buddy, who comprise the Back Porch Blues Band. Buddy has gotten a very special bottle of Domaine Vincent Dauvissat Chablis Les Preuses and is saving it for the right occasion. Throughout the novel, Big Ben keeps asking if it’s the right time to open that bottle. Without spoiling the story I think I can say that the bottle is opened at a good time. And in Quilt or Innocence, the first of Craig’s Southern Quilting mysteries, we meet Beatrice Coleman, who’s recently moved to Dappled Hills, North Carolina after retiring from her career as an art expert in Atlanta. No sooner does Coleman move into her small home than she meets her new neighbour Meadow Downey and soon afterwards, Meadow’s large (mostly Great Dane) mixed-breed dog Boris. Boris decides that he likes Coleman and begins to pay her boisterous visits which usually involve stealing whatever food he can. Coleman joins the Village Quilters guild and gets embroiled in a murder investigation when one of its members is killed. Boris isn’t the key to the murderer’s identity, but he’s in the story purposefully. One of the reasons is to provide the running theme of his frequent and rarely peaceful visits to Coleman.
And then there’s Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant series. Quant is a Saskatoon private investigator who does quite a lot of travelling. And even when he’s at home, he doesn’t often take the time to update his wardrobe for every occasion. But he doesn’t worry about that because he’s got his wonderpants. Here is how Quant describes them in A Date With Sheeshah:
“My wonderpants. Black. A bit stretchy. Made my a** look great. Always fit, no matter how many slices of pizza I’d shoved down my pie-hole the night before.”
Quant’s wonderpants aren’t the key to solving the cases he is hired to solve. But they’re a fun pattern that runs through this series.
And that’s the thing about an author’s “signature.” It may be overt, such as the titles of the books in a series, or more subtle, such as Russell Quant’s wonderpants. But that “signature” gives a series the distinctive touch of the author. What “signatures” do your favourite authors use? If you’re a writer, do you have a “signature?” What is it?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Modern English’s Chapter 12.