Category Archives: John D. MacDonald

Looking For Evidence to Help it All Make Sense*

Light and Order from ChaosResearch on thinking and knowing has shown us for a long time that humans like things to make sense. When we encounter something that doesn’t fit our mental picture of what ought to be, we mentally wrestle with it until either our mental picture adapts or we learn more about the something we encounter. That’s arguably why so many people love crime fiction. It’s an opportunity to impose some order (who/why/howdunit) on chaos (a murder or murders and the aftermath). Even in crime novels that don’t have a happy ending, we want to know how the pieces all fit together and how it all makes sense. And readers can get very cranky if there doesn’t seem to be any order in a plot.

The drive to impose order on what seems to be chaos is also a motivator for detectives. They want the puzzle pieces to fit together. Of course there are other motivators too; murders are very human events that affect people on many levels. They’re far more than just intellectual puzzles. But at the same time, detectives still want the puzzle to fit together and make sense. Definitely fictional sleuths do. It’s the way we humans seem to be made.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes sees virtually all of his cases as opportunities to impose some sort of order on what seems like chaos. Take for instance The Adventure of the Dancing Men. Hilton Cubitt is worried about his wife Elsie. She’s never told him everything about her past, although she claims that she’s done nothing of which she need be ashamed. But she has had some dubious associations and now the past seems to be catching up with her. She’s been getting some cryptic notes that at first make no sense at all. They’re simply drawings that look like childish scrawls. But it’s precisely because they don’t make sense that Holmes is interested in them. But before he can figure out what the drawings mean, there’s a tragedy at the Cubitt home. Hilton Cubitt is killed and his wife badly wounded. Now it’s more important than ever that Holmes make sense of the drawings. Once he does, he’s able to find out the truth about the murder.

We also see this same drive for things to make sense in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. As Poirot fans know, his watchwords are order and method. And he’s not satisfied until every unexplained detail makes sense. That, for instance, is why he doesn’t ‘buy’ the police theory in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  When retired manufacturing magnate Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study one night, the most likely suspect seems to be his stepson Captain Ralph Paton. The two had quarreled violently and what’s more, Paton was known to be in desperate need of the money he would inherit at Ackroyd’s death. But Paton’s fiancée Flora Ackroyd doesn’t believe he’s guilty. She asks Poirot to look into the matter and at first he agrees to do so for her sake. But then he begins to have questions himself about Paton’s guilt. Those questions arise mostly from small things that can’t be explained by the police theory. That desire to have all of the details cleared up help lead Poirot to the truth about the murder.

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse also likes the pieces of a puzzle to all make sense. That’s in part why he perseveres in The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn. Quinn is the only Deaf member of Oxford’s Foreign Examinations Syndicate. That group is responsible for overseeing examinations given in non-UK countries with a British education tradition. Membership in the Syndicate is prestigious and select, and Quinn was by no means the universal choice. But he settles in and starts his work. Then one day he is killed by what turns out to be poison. Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the death and discover that all sorts of secrets are being hidden by Syndicate members, and that Quinn could easily have discovered one of them. Morse thinks he’s found out the truth, but then when something he learns won’t quite fit in with the rest, he completely re-thinks what happened and that leads him to the real killer.

Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest likes things to make sense, too. In Gunshot Road for instance, she’s assigned to help investigate the murder of Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins at Green Swamp Well. The killing looks like a case of a drunken quarrel that ended tragically. But for Tempest the pieces don’t fit together. That explanation doesn’t account for what she knows about the man accused of Ozolins’ murder. It also doesn’t account for some physical evidence that she spots not very far from Ozolins’ cabin, where the murder took place. That urge for things to make sense is partly what drives Tempest to chart her own course in the investigation and find out the truth.

In The Twelfth Department, William Ryan’s Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev and his partner Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka are assigned to find the murderer of noted scientist Boris Azarov. Azarov’s work was highly classified, so the investigation has to be carefully conducted. They’ve just about settled on a suspect when that person is murdered too. The much-feared NKVD (this series takes place in pre-World War II Stalinist Moscow) has a theory about the crimes. And Korolev and Slivka have every reason to ‘rubber stamp’ that theory. It’s not implausible either. But both detectives know that it doesn’t explain everything. They want the truth about the case, and any truthful explanation has to account for everything. So despite the danger of going up against the NKVD, the two continue their investigation.

Not all fictional detectives see the process of imposing order on chaos as a completely intellectual matter. For Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee, making sense of it all is a matter of restoring hozro – balance and beauty – to the world. Murder throws things out of balance and Chee wants to set things right and restore the balance by finding out the truth. There are several instances in the novels featuring him where he also acknowledges the sense of chaos in himself that comes from being involved in murders. He’s certainly intellectually curious but for him, it’s just as important to solve crimes to impose what you might call a spiritual order. That’s how he makes meaning.

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe also wants to make sense of it all, even though he knows that the answers he gets won’t always be pleasant. He’s got a sense of what ‘counts’ as ‘right’ and ‘just.’ Of course, those are risky words because everyone has a different definition of what ‘the right thing’ to do is, or what’s ‘just.’ That’s the stuff of a separate post in and of itself. But for Marlowe, making sense of the world and imposing some sort of mental order on it is a matter of righting injustices if I can put it like that. It’s that way for John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, too.

We can say that it must be an important personality trait in detectives to want to restore order – for things to make sense. But really, that’s true of all of us. We all seem to want things to make sense. Little wonder that so many of us love solving crime-fictional mysteries.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Kansas’ Chasing Shadows.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Colin Dexter, John D. MacDonald, Raymond Chandler, Tony Hillerman, William Ryan

Are You Sorry We Drifted Apart?*

Letting Series Get AwayThere are all kinds of things that can draw us in to a crime fiction series. We may identify with the protagonist, or we may find the setting irresistible. Sometimes it’s the cast of ‘regular’ characters. There are other things too that draw us in. You’d think that with all of these appeals, people wouldn’t stop reading the work of their favourite authors. And yet, they do. I’m not talking here of series we stop reading because the quality of it goes down. That’s happened to all of us I’d imagine. Rather, I’m talking of series we truly enjoy but nonetheless stop reading.  If you’ve ever thought to yourself, ‘I haven’t read those books for years. Wonder why I stopped..,’ you know exactly what I mean. Why do we stop reading series we really enjoy?

Part of it may simply be sheer volume. For example, Evan Hunter AKA Ed McBain wrote more than 50 of his 87th Precinct novels.  And although they vary in quality, they’re all of high calibre. So a reader might be very hard-put to follow the entire series, no matter how engaging the books are. Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs. Bradley series is like that too. Mitchell was a prolific writer. A lot of people think this series is more uneven than the 87th Precinct series but even if one would choose only the best among them, there would still be dozens of novels. It wouldn’t be easy to keep up and manage all of them. And the thought of trying to do so can be daunting, especially for those who prefer to read all of the books in a series and not skip any of them.

In the opposite sort of phenomenon, there are also series, even beloved series, that people stop reading because there hasn’t been a new entry in a long time. For example, Lilian Jackson Braun began her Jim Qwilleran series in the late 1960s. But after the first three novels, Braun took a break from writing the series until the mid-1980s. By that time of course, a lot of readers had moved on to other authors. Philip Kerr did a similar thing with his Bernie Gunther series. He took a fifteen-year break between the first novels in the series and 2006’s The One From the Other. In both of those cases, readers found other series to love and for a time it was a matter of, ‘Oh, I used to read ____’s books and loved them. There just aren’t any new ones.’

People’s tastes change over time, too. For instance, you may have started your crime fiction reading with a real interest in PI novels such as John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. But as time has gone by, perhaps you’ve gotten away from those novels, as high-quality as they are. Maybe you’ve become more interested in police procedurals such as Stephen Booth’s Fry and Cooper series, or Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels. Or perhaps you’ve developed an interest in more noir kinds of novels such as Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money. In cases like that, it’s got nothing to do with the quality of a series. Rather, it’s changes in taste and reading priorities.

Sometimes people drift away from series because those series don’t get a lot of press, and don’t stay on one’s proverbial radar. For instance, Margaret Coel has been writing her Wind River Reservation series featuring attorney Vicky Holden and Franciscan priest Fr. John O’Malley since 1996. It’s certainly gotten some attention, and (at least in my opinion) it’s a well-written series with well-developed characters. But it hasn’t gotten nearly the international attention that, say, Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn novels have gotten. And with the constant media hype of certain books and authors, it takes concentration to focus on those whose work isn’t always being hyped. So it’s easy to let series like that slip away without even being aware of it.

Perhaps the biggest reason people don’t keep up with series they truly enjoy is that there is so much other well-written crime fiction to read. And with today’s technology, we have instant access to reviews, news about new releases and so on. On the positive side, that means that we can read more kinds of well-written crime fiction by more different kinds of authors than ever before. We have more choices than we’ve ever had. And that’s a good thing for the crime fiction fan. On the other hand, it does make it harder to keep up with one’s favourite series.

What about you? Which series have you really enjoyed, but let get away from you? How do you keep up with series you love without ignoring new releases and new-to-you authors? If you’re a writer, what do you do to keep your fans loyal (beyond, of course, telling good stories as well as you can)?



NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lou Handman and Roy Turk’s Are You Lonesome Tonight?


Filed under Andrew Nette, Ed McBain, Evan Hunter, Gladys Mitchell, John D. MacDonald, Lilian Jackson Braun, Margaret Coel, Philip Kerr, Reginald Hill, Stephen Booth, Tony Hillerman

I Tell Them There’s No Hurry, I’m Just Sitting Here Doing Time*

ContentA lot of people have ambitions to get ahead – social climbers if you want to call it that. One of their main goals in life is to climb as far up the social or professional ladder as they can, and sometimes it doesn’t matter who gets hurt in the process. Those kinds of people make for interesting fictional characters because that ambition can add a layer of tension to a story and interest to a character.

Other people though are content to be exactly who they are. It’s not at all that they’re necessarily lazy. It’s just that they have no desire to ‘get ahead;’ instead, they are satisfied with where they are in life, even if they never get to the proverbial top of the tree. Characters like that may not bring as much conflict into a story as a character who’s ambitious, but they are often much more pleasant to be around. And that can make them very appealing in their way.

We meet that kind of character in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs. Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to find out who poisoned her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. Crale died sixteen years earlier, and at the time of the murder, his wife Caroline was arrested, tried and imprisoned. There was good reason, too. She had the poison in her possession, she’d threatened her husband, and she knew very well he was having an affair with someone else. But Carla insists that her mother was innocent and is determined to have Poirot clear her name. Poirot agrees to take the case and interviews the five people who were present at the time of the murder. He also gets from each of them an account of the days immediately before the murder, and the events of the day itself. One of these interviewees is Cecilia Williams, who was governess to Caroline Crale’s younger sister Angela Warren. Miss Williams


‘…had done her duty in that station of life to which it had pleased God to call her, and that assurance encased her in an armour impregnable to the slings and darts of envy, discontent and regret.’ 


Although she has very strong opinions about Amyas Crale’s murder and his wife’s subsequent trial and imprisonment, she is not ambitious. Rather, she makes do with her lot in life and is still quite interested in the world. And her evidence turns out to be very helpful to Poirot.

John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee is also content with where he is in life. He’s got no desire at all to ‘get ahead.’  He calls himself a ‘salvage consultant’ and his focus is on helping people get back what’s been taken from them. He doesn’t want to acquire more money than he needs to keep up his houseboat The Busted Flush and he likes living on the boat more than he would probably like living at a fancy address. We see that attitude in The Empty Copper Sea, in which Van Harder is accused of having killed his boss Hub Lawless. Harder is not at all perfect, but he claims he’s no murderer and he asks McGee to find out what really happened to Lawless and clear his name. McGee agrees and goes searching for the truth. Here’s what he says to Van’s wife Eleanor about taking on the case:


‘ Van thinks that I am undertaking this venture for money. I’m not. I’ll take expenses, if he insists. But no ten thousand. I pretended to go along with that because if I said I would do it as a favor, he wouldn’t have wanted me to come over here at all.’ 


And fans of this series know that McGee tends to be most interested in cases where ‘down and out’ clients have come to him because they have nowhere else to go.

Tony Hillerman’s Sergeant Jim Chee is also content to be where he is, doing what he does. He’s a member of the Navajo Tribal Police and he’s lived in the Navajo Nation all his life. In several novels in the series, he has the opportunity to try to ‘move up the ranks’ in law enforcement. At one point for instance he seriously considers a position with the FBI, and that idea is supported by his then-lover Mary Landon. But in the end, he decides not to go. He’s too much a part of the Reservation where he lives. Later, after he and Mary end their relationship, he meets Janet Pete, an attorney who’s been working in Washington. They begin a relationship and talk seriously about returning to Washington where Chee could work with the FBI. But again, he finds that he is content where is. At one point, he does get a temporary promotion to Lieutenant and although he does his job well enough, he finds that the administration and paperwork are just not for him. He does come to respect the difficulties that come with administration though.

There’s also M.C. Beaton’s Constable Hamish Macbeth, who lives and works in the Scottish Highlands town of Lochdubh. It’s not that he’s unwilling to do his work as the village bobby. But he has absolutely no ambition at all. ‘Social climbing’ is definitely not for him, and neither is moving up the ranks in police administration. He’s quite content to fish, spend time with his dog Towser (and in later books, his dog Lugs), and do the job of constable when he has to do it. That’s a bit of what’s earned him the enmity of Colonel Halburton-Smythe, a wealthy local landowner. Macbeth has an on-again, off-again relationship with Halburton-Smythe’s daughter Priscilla, and the Colonel considers Macbeth a most unsuitable choice. Not only is he not ‘well-born,’ but he has no desire to be anything but the village bobby – not the sort of life that the Colonel wants for his daughter. But don’t let Macbeth’s lack of ambition fool you; he knows the area, he knows the people and he’s a good judge of character. He’s quite good at finding out whodunit, much to the chagrin of his glory-hunting boss DCI Blair.

Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun was hoping for a quiet retirement. But in the new and very different world of 1970s Laos, that’s not to be. Paiboun is ‘volunteered’ to become Laos’ medical examiner and, seeing that he doesn’t have much choice, he takes on his new duties in The Coroner’s Lunch. Political intrigue is very much a part of life in that environment, and people get ahead based on whom they know and on who owes them favours. But Dr. Siri wants none of that ‘moving ahead.’ As he does the work of investigating cases, he’s more interested in putting to rest the spirits of those who’ve died than he is in getting ahead and ‘social climbing.’ And he even gets annoyed at times when those spirits won’t leave him alone…

One of the most appealing things about Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is that she is content to be who she is and where she is. She’s a former accountant who’s found much more meaning in her new life as a baker. She does get involved in solving mysteries when one of her friends is in trouble; that’s the kind of loyal person she is. But she has no desire to ‘make her name’ as a sleuth. She’s not even really a ‘social climber’ if you can call it that in her own business community. In Trick or Treat, we learn that she does get unhappy when a branch of Best Fresh, a chain of bakeries, opens nearby; she thinks that there’s plenty of room in Melbourne for several bakeries and there was no need to open one so close to her own. But at the same time, she’s no desire to own a chain of bakeries herself. Her own shop is enough for her and she’s content.

People who are really content with what they’re doing have a sense of peace about life that makes them very appealing. So really, is it necessary to be a ‘go-getter?’ For some people perhaps, but a lot of fictional sleuths would tell you that it’s not.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Lennon’s Watching the Wheels. Yes, I’ve used this one before. Hey, it’s a great song! You’re welcome. ;-)


Filed under Agatha Christie, John D. MacDonald, Kerry Greenwood, M.C. Beaton, Tony Hillerman

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Horse Collars, Herbs and Other Highly Unusual Homicides

Horse Collars, Herbs and other HomicidesThe Crime Fiction Alphabet meme is moving along on our treacherous trip through the alphabet. Our tour leader Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise assures me that there’s still lots yet to see. Thanks, Kerrie, for managing all of our arrangements. Today our group has arrived at the River of H Hotel and Spa and everyone’s eager for a chance to settle in and relax. We’ve heard there’s a particularly good hot wrap here for those interested. While everybody’s booking massages, calling home and taking ‘photos, I’ll share my contribution for the week: horse-collars, herbs and other highly unusual homicides.

I’m sure that we can all think of dozens and dozens of crime novels where the victim dies by stabbing, gunshot wound, drowning and so on. Those are believable ways to murder too. But sometimes it makes for an interesting change when the victim dies in a more unusual way. Of course the risk of that is loss of credibility, but if it’s done well, it can be really effective.

We see an example of this in Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table. In that novel, Hercule Poirot gets an invitation to dinner at the home of the very mysterious and eccentric Mr. Shaitana. This isn’t going to be a typical kind of dinner party though. Shaitana has invited seven other guests. Three, like Poirot, are sleuths. The other four are people Mr. Shaitana believes have gotten away with murder. He hints as much during the meal and everyone feels a little uncomfortable. After the dinner, the group divides into two to play bridge. At some time during the evening, one of the guests stabs Mr. Shaitana. The only suspects are the four people who are possibly guilty of other murders. So the four sleuths work together to find out with of the guests killed their host. Part of this investigation is looking into each guest’s past. That’s how the sleuths discover that one of the guests Anne Meredith was companion to a Mrs. Benson, who died after ingesting hat paint which she thought was her usual dose of Syrup of Figs. At the inquest the death was ruled accidental. But was it??

Of all things, a hiccup turns out to be murderous in John D. MacDonald’s short story Homicidal Hiccup. Johnny Howard and his gang run Baker City. They’ve got a stranglehold on most of the local businesses and everyone’s afraid of the consequences of going up against Howard. That is, until Walter Maybree moves to town and buys the local drugstore. Maybree wants to run a ‘clean’ business and after a time, several other locals stand up for him and help to guard him and his soda shop. Howard is now losing respect and wants desperately to get rid of Maybree. So he and his girlfriend Bonny Gerlacher devise a plan. She’ll go into the drugstore disguised as a teenager from the local high school. Once there she’ll use a drink straw to shoot poison at Maybree when he steps close to her. That’s until a natural human reaction – a hiccup – changes everything…

Arthur Porges’ short story Horse-Collar Homicide features pathologist Dr. Joel Hoffman, who gets a very unusual case. Wealthy Leonard Lakewood has suddenly died and at first it looks as though he had a massive stroke. But some hints in the pathology results suggest that this wasn’t a stroke. So Hoffman decides to talk to the family. It turns out that at the time of his death Lakewood was leading the family in a game called ‘grinning through a horse collar.’ In this game a horse collar is suspended so that it hangs at about the height of a human face. Then, players take turns putting their faces through the horse collar and making the most ridiculous expressions they can. The winner is the player who gets the most laughs. Lakewood died during his turn and when he learns this, Hoffman begins to wonder how a horse collar could kill a man without even touching him. After a little more searching, he finds out how the thing was managed and he discovers that just about everyone in Lakewood’s family had a motive for murder.

There’s also an unusual murder weapon in Louise Penny’s The Cruelest Month. A well-known Hungarian psychic Madame Blavatsky has taken a room at the local B & B in the small town of Three Pines, in rural Québec. She is persuaded to give a séance and plans are made for everyone to attend. Then it comes out that Madame Blavatsky is not who she says she is. Still, it’s decided to go ahead with the séance since the plans are already in place. While the séance is taking place, Madeleine Favreau, who’s recently returned to Three Pines after a serious bout with illness, suddenly dies. At first everyone believes she was frightened to death. But the explanation is both simpler and more complicated than that. It turns out that the victim died of a lethal overdose of an herb called Ephedra, often used in diet drugs. Once it’s proven that Madeleine Favreau was murdered, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team look into her past to find out who would have wanted to kill her.

Could a haunting really kill? So it seems at first in Helene Tursten’s Night Rounds. One night during a blackout at Löwander Hospital, one of the nurses Marianne Svärd is killed. Another nurse Linda Svensson goes missing; her body is later discovered hung in a seldom-used attic in the hospital. Göteborg police detective Irene Huss and her team investigate the hospital, since everything seems to come back to something that’s going on there. One of the leads they follow is the fifty-year-old story of the death of Tekla Olsson, also a nurse. She hung herself in the same place where Linda Svensson’s body is discovered. What’s more, a few people report seeing her ghost just before the blackout. Is Tekla Olsson haunting the hospital? Huss and her team don’t think this case has a paranormal explanation and in fact, they find a very prosaic motive. But the thought that the hospital might be haunted does play a role in the novel.

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri comes up against the possibility that a holy being has committed murder. Puri learns through newspapers and TV reports that a former client Dr. Suresh Jha has been killed, and it looks very much as though the murderer is the goddess Kali. Puri can’t resist looking into the case, and soon learns how the murder came about. According to reports, Jha was attending a meeting of The Laughter Club, which uses laughter as therapy. During the meeting, Kali appeared and stabbed him. To a lot of people this murder makes sense, since Jha’s mission in life was to debunk ‘The Godmen,’ religious charlatans who prey on people’s vulnerability. A lot of people believe that Kali really killed Jha in retribution for his being an unbeliever. Puri doesn’t think that’s true though, and he and his team look into the case more deeply. As it turns out, the truth is just about as strange as the story that everyone believes…


So you see, not all murderers make use of everyday weapons like knives, rope, lead pipes or revolvers. There are some other, highly unusual, weapons out there. Now, may I offer you a cup of homeopathic herbal tea?  ;-)


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Porges, Helene Tursten, John D. MacDonald, Louise Penny, Tarquin Hall

The Name Game*

TitlesAuthors, 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.


ps. Many thanks to Mack at AfricaScreams for the review that led to the inspiration for this post. Folks, do check out this excellent blog. It’s a rich resource for crime fiction from Africa.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Shirley Ellis and Lincoln Chase.


Filed under Deji Olukotun, Deon Meyer, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Gene Kerrigan, John D. MacDonald, Martha Grimes, Riley Adams, Sue Grafton, Tarquin Hall