Authors, editors and publishers spend quite a bit of time choosing the right titles for books. And that makes sense. A good title can attract a reader’s interest and help make (and keep) a series distinctive. A ‘clunky’ title or a title that has little to do with the story can put readers off or make readers feel cheated.
So what does make for a good title? Everyone has different views about this, and the same sort of title that attracts some readers puts others off. I’m hardly an expert on title choice, but here are a few of my ideas about crime fiction titles and types of titles that work.
Traditional wisdom is that titles should be relatively short, and I can see why. Titles that are too long are cumbersome and annoying, and it’s much harder for people to remember them. There are even some very effective titles of only one word. For example, Deon Meyer’s Trackers is a highly effective title. The novel tells three stories, really. One is the story of professional bodyguard Martin Lemmer, who’s persuaded to help smuggle some rare rhinos across the border from Zimbabwe to South Africa. Another is the story of Millla Strachan, who fled an abusive husband and untenable home life and takes a new job as a journalist. The third is the story of Mat Joubert, recently retired from the police service, who’s now doing private investigation. He takes the case of Tanya Flint, whose husband Danie has disappeared. The three stories are tied together (no spoilers!), and all of them involve leaving traces, tracking those traces, and the ‘footprints’ we leave behind. The novel treats this theme on several levels and the title shows that in only one word.
Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage tells the story of Dublin DS Bob Tidey’s investigation into the murder of Emmet Sweetman. Sweetman was a successful but shady banker who’s shot in his home by two thugs. It’s also the story of Vincent Naylor, who’s recently been released from prison. Naylor, his brother Noel, and some of their friends plan a major heist – the robbery of a security company that transports money among banks and businesses. Figuring in both cases is Maura Cody, a former nun who is trying to live with her own past. As we learn what’s behind Sweetman’s murder, how the planned armed robbery plays out, and what Maura Cody is trying to live with, we see the common theme of rage. There’s rage against those who profited illegally from the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years in Ireland. There’s rage against certain events that happen in the story. And there’s the rage that has come from the revelations about certain priests and nuns in the Catholic Church. The novel’s plot threads are tied together in a few ways, that theme being one of them, and it’s neatly captured in the title.
Titles can also be used effectively to tie a series together. For example, John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels all include a colour in the title. There’s The Deep Blue Goodbye, The Lonely Silver Rain and those are just the first and last in the series. And Sue Grafton’s series featuring PI Kinsey Millhone are famously titled by letters of the alphabet. What’s more, each title also includes a crime-related word. I’m not sure what the title of W is For… will be, but according to her Facebook page, Grafton said (as of 22 February) that
‘W is for Whew!’
and that she has completed the ‘W’ novel. No word on publication date or actual title yet.
Many cosy series titles are linked too, so as to tie the novels together. For instance, Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) is the author of the Memphis Barbecue series, each novel of which has something related to barbecue in the title. There’s Delicious and Suspicious, Finger Lickin’ Dead, Hickory Smoked Homicide, and (coming soon), Rubbed Out. Not only do those titles link the novels, but they also are short, clever and easy to remember too.
One of the more inventive ways to title novels in a series has come from Martha Grimes, whose Richard Jury/Melrose Plant novels are each titled with the name of a pub. What’s even more effective is that the titles also have something to do with the story itself. For instance, The Anodyne Necklace concerns the murder of temporary secretary Cora Binns, the theft of several valuables, including a particular emerald necklace, and a vicious attack on sixteen-year-old Katie O’Brien. All of these incidents take place or are related to the same village, so it’s a little much for Jury and Plant to think they are unrelated. And they do turn out to be interwoven events. The title in this case gives readers an important clue to the plot and is consistent with Grimes’ other titles.
Titles can also be very effective if there’s something unusual about them – something that makes the reader curious. For example, Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing has a title that makes the reader wonder. And it’s got everything to do with the plot too. This novel concerns the case of Dr. Suresh Jha. One morning, Jha attends a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club, instructed by Professor Pandey. The principle behind the club is that laughing therapy provides exercise, healthy breathing and an opportunity to heal both body and soul. The members are involved in their regular laughing exercises when it seems that the goddess Kali appears and murders Jha. The event becomes a media circus and a rallying cry for those who believe that the gods and goddesses have been neglected. It comes out that Jha was the leader of the Delhi Institute for Rationalism and Education (DIRE), which is dedicated to the unmasking of fake gurus and spiritualists – ‘the godmen’ as Jha called them. Many people believe that Kali has attacked Jha in revenge for his diatribe against her worship. Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri gets interested in this case since Jha was a client at one point. He starts to ask questions and follow up leads on what really happened. And as it turns out, this case is, in many ways, not what it seems. But as you can see, the title is not just an attention-getting title. It’s also a solid reflection of what happens in the story.
So, what got me thinking about titles? Another really fascinating title: Nigerians in Space, written by Deji Olukotun. It’s certainly an unusual title and reflects the theme of the novel. This one’s about a Nigerian government official named Bello, who contacts Nigerian scientists around the world. His proposal is that they return to Nigeria and pursue their science in their own country, so as to make Nigeria a technology/science powerhouse. He seems to be bona fide, and a few of his contacts take him up on his offer. But of course, this is a crime thriller, so things don’t go as planned…The plot lines in the novel follow the stories of three people who are affected by Bello’s offer and all are related both to that offer and in a larger way, to the concept of the moon. And no, it’s not science fiction. I’ll confess I’ve not (yet) read this novel. But the title did inspire me to think about this whole question of how we choose titles and what they mean.
What about you? Do you choose a book based on its title? Do you pay close attention to titles? Which titles have you thought were the best/cleverest? If you’re a writer, I’d be really interested in how you choose your titles.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Shirley Ellis and Lincoln Chase.