In the Beginning I Misunderstood*

Strange and Misleading TitlesAn interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about book titles. And while I’m mentioning that excellent blog, let me encourage you to pay it a visit. Moira’s blog is the source for all kinds of interesting discussion of fashion and culture in fiction, and what it all says about us. In the post, Moira shared some interesting book titles that are misleading in the sense that they don’t have much to do with the actual subject of the book. There are plenty of other titles too that are enigmatic, so that it’s hard to tell exactly what the book is about, really.

On the one hand, a title that tells the reader something important about the book can be a really useful marketing tool, especially if it’s not overlong or difficult to remember. On the other hand, sometimes, enigmatic or odd titles can generate interest too, and get the reader wondering what’s in the book. There are certainly titles like that in crime fiction; here are just a few.

Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide) has, as fans will know, nothing to do with floods, tides or water. Rather, it’s the story of the Cloade family, and what happens when wealthy patriarch Gordon Cloade marries without making a will – and then is tragically killed in a bomb blast. His young widow Rosaleen is now set to inherit his fortune, and his other family members are understandably not pleased about that. Then a stranger calling himself Enoch Arden comes to town. He hints that Rosaleen may not have been a widow, as she claimed, at the time of her marriage to Cloade. If her first husband is still alive, her second marriage is of course null and she cannot inherit. So there’s a lot of interest in whether ‘Enoch Arden’ is telling the truth. One night he’s killed. Hercule Poirot has already heard the story of the Cloade family, and his interest is piqued in the case. There is a connection between that quote from Shakespeare that serves as the title and the novel itself. But it’s not a direct connection that would give away the premise (as opposed, say, to Christie’s The ABC Murders).

If you picked up Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, knowing nothing about it, you might assume it’s about people who make clothes. The reality is that the novel has nothing to do with the making of clothing. Rather, it’s the story of an ill-fated trip that Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet/assistant Mervyn Bunter take through East Anglia. They have a car accident near Fenchurch St. Paul, and Rector Theodore Venables comes to their aid, even inviting them to stay at the Rectory until their car is fixed. They agree with gratitude and settle in. As it turns out, Lord Peter is soon able to repay the kindness. The local change-ringers are getting ready for their New Year’s Eve ringing when one of them, Will Thoday, becomes ill. Wimsey takes his place and the ringing goes on as planned. On the same day, word comes that Lady Thorpe, wife of the local squire Sir Henry, has died of the same illness. So Wimsey and Bunter stay on for her funeral. A few months later, Wimsey gets a letter from Venables. Sir Henry has died, and the gravediggers preparing for his burial have discovered to their shock that there’s another body in the Thorpe grave. Venables wants Wimsey to return to Fenchurch St. Paul and investigate. When he does so, Wimsey finds that it’s all connected to a long-ago robbery. So where does the title come in? It’s the number of times (nine) that the church bells ring when a man dies (ringing the nine tailors). It’s connected to the story, but you need to know that change-ringing term to see that link immediately.

Philip Kerr’s March Violets is the first in his historical series featuring cop-turned-PI Bernie Gunther. The story’s focus is a stolen diamond necklace. Wealthy and powerful Hermann Six hires Gunther to track down the necklace after it’s taken from the safe in his daughter’s bedroom. As he explains to Gunther, his daughter and her husband were shot that same night, but he is relying on the police to investigate those murders. His motivation for hiring Gunther to find the necklace is that he doesn’t want it to fall into the hands of the increasingly powerful Third Reich. Gunther agrees, and begins to ask questions. As he does so, he comes to the unwelcome attention of some of Berlin’s criminal class, who do not want him to find out the truth. And when Gunther finds a link between those people and the newly-emerging Nazi leadership, the Nazis too are motivated to shut him up. As you can see, this novel isn’t about horticulture. The title comes from the derogatory term used for those who supported the Nazis, but only after they had taken power in 1933. Those were people who, as the explanation went, waited to see which way the wind blew before aligning themselves.

Andrea Camilleri’s The Shape of Water isn’t about water, or even about mysterious shapes. In that novel, Inspector Salvo Montalbano and his team investigate the death of up-and-coming politician Silvio Luparello. He was found in a very compromising position in a car at a notorious place called The Pasture, where prostitutes meet their clients and small-time drug deals are conducted. There seems on the surface of it no reason to believe that this is murder. Luparello seems to have died of natural causes (a heart attack) at a very inopportune time, but there’s no reason to think he was murdered. Still, Montalbano has a feeling that there’s more to this case, and he’s given two days to follow up. Sure enough, there is plenty beneath the proverbial surface, and Montalbano finds out what it is. This title refers to a story that Luparello’s widow tells Montalbano. The key point of that story is that water doesn’t have a shape; it takes the shape you give it. This case has the shape, in other words, that it’s been given.

There’s also Alan Bradley’s series featuring Flavia de Luce. Much of the series takes place in the 1950s in and around the fictional English village of Bishop’s Lacey. The titles of these novels are (at least in my opinion) inventive. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie; The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag; and I am Half-Sick of Shadows are just three examples. They are all connected with the stories in some way. Still, these titles don’t really directly reflect the main plot.

And I hope I may be forgiven for mentioning a non-crime-fictional example. J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye isn’t about grains or a position on a baseball or cricket team. As you’ll no doubt know, it’s about the coming of age of Holden Caulfield, and the experiences he has after he leaves the prestigious school he’s attending. It’s got plenty of other themes as well, of course. The title comes from a misquoting of Robert Burns’ Comin’ Through the Rye, and from Caulfield’s desire to preserve the innocence of childhood (and his own particular world view).

Those enigmatic or even misleading titles can be intriguing and they can certainly set a book apart. What do you think? Does it bother you when a title doesn’t directly tell you about the novel? If you’re a writer, do you opt for a more straightforward title, or do you choose something less obvious?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ The Word.


Filed under Alan Bradley, Andrea Camilleri, Angela Savage, Dorothy Sayers, J.D. Salinger, Philip Kerr

24 responses to “In the Beginning I Misunderstood*

  1. I prefer the title clue me in to genre, but other than that, it hard enough for an author to come up with a unique title, much less one that clues the reader in to subject. I should think about titles more after picking one for my last book that definitely fit the genre and topic, but was not one bit unique.

    • I know exactly what you mean about choosing just the right title, Pat. That takes real effort, and if you add to that the desire to make it a standout, unique title, it gets even more complicated doesn’t it? For what it’s worth, I think Dead Wrong is a good choice for a title. Pssst, folks, do check out Dead Wrong. Pat’s got writing skills!

  2. In general I’d say I like misleading titles. They cause me to pick up the book and discover what it’s really about. I’m often surprised too at how a book title changes when it’s printed in another country. I’ve often wondered why the same title isn’t used. Great post, Margot.

    • Thanks, Mason. And you make a really well-taken point about titles changing when they are translated. Very often a new title is chosen that isn’t a translation of the original. Sometimes I think it might be because of cultural differences. Other times, I suspect, it’s because of perceived greater sales. Either way that can be confusing! And you’re right; sometimes a title you don’t quite understand can lure you to try a book…

  3. Keishon

    Everything about the cover is used for marketing these days. Even the title so I half expect anything about it to be accurate. Whatever works to get readers to pick it up…. nevertheless, this was a fun post, as usual, Margot. Thanks.

  4. Kathy D.

    Book titles: I’m often amazed at how they don’t reflect anything about the books, but they can still be intriguing. Take Mari Strachan’s, “The Earth Hums in B Flat.” What does that have to do with the life of a 12-year-old Welsh girl?
    I’m glad you chose Camilleri’s titles. I find they’re intriguing, although often have nothing to do with the plots, which I think I wrote at Moira’s blog. Yet the books are funny and good and unputdownable.
    I like interesting titles and puns. But reviews, blog comments, friend’s ideas are what get me reading books, not titles or covers.
    I’ve read a lot of books suggested here and at other great blogs.

    • Kathy – Oh, I’m with you on getting recommendations from friends, fellow bloggers and so on. That said, though, I like inventive titles too. And the Strachan is a great example. Thanks for filling in that gap. And yes, I think that the Camilleri titles are great.

  5. Margot I have a book on my TBR that is released here as If She Did It ( by Jessica Tredway) elsewhere it has been released as Lacey Eye – that title means nothing too me – I don’t understand it – is it a cultural thing??

  6. I do like titles of novels to have some relationship to the book… Even if it takes until the end of the book to figure it out.

  7. Sometimes I like when a title is ambiguous and then while reading you figure out why the author used it. But I also think you need a big name to pull that off. When building a readership, I think, it’s safer to stick with titles that at least show the genre. Personally, I like one or two word titles that deliver a punch.

    • Sue – I think you make an interesting and important distinction between authors whose names are already known, etc., and authors who are building their readerships. That does make a difference. And I think it’s definitely a good idea (in general) to choose titles that pack a punch, as you say, in just a few words.

  8. Col

    I must admit I don’t like titles changing between countries – I’ve bought the same book twice on a few occasions. I do like something punchy as opposed to something essay length as the title.

    • Col – I know just what you mean. It is annoying when you buy a book you think is a new title, only to find you’ve already read it – possibly more than once. I understand that sometimes there are good reasons to change a title, but usually I’m with you on that one. And like you, I prefer a a title that gets to the point.

  9. Thanks for kind words Margot, and once again I am glad to have inspired you. I like titles to have some connection with content, but particularly like some clever ambiguity. For example, Ngaio Marsh’s Scales of Justice is a good name for a crime novel – you might expect it would deal with a court case? But in fact it’s a murder story involving fishing, and the scales of a trout play an improbably large part. Score to Ngaio!

    • Oh, most definitely, Moira. I like that about that title too! It’s a way of balancing the need for that connection with the story on the one hand, with cleverness and ingenuity on the other. It’s a nice, short, crisp title too. And it’s always my great pleasure to mention your excellent blog.

  10. I like an evocative title and I do like it to relate to the book, but maybe in a way that only becomes clear once the book is read. ‘On Beulah Height’ is not only my favourite crime novel but also one of my favourite titles because it sounds mysterious and dramatic and somehow moving before the book is even opened. I’m with Carol – I never understand why titles get changed from region to region. Litlle Lies (which is a good title, I think) was changed to Big Little Lies (which is terrible!) when the book was published elsewhere…

    • FictionFan – I have to agree with you about On Beulah Height. It’s not just a terrific choice of title, but an excellent novel as well. And you’re right; it refers to the story without being too ‘cookie cutter.’
      I have no idea why titles get changed (especially changes such as Little Lies to Big Little Lies. There are sometimes arguments for a title change, but generally, across regions, or even dialects of the same language, I almost never think that a title change is in order. And yet, publishers wouldn’t do it if there weren’t a reason for it. I honestly don’t know why they do that…

  11. Enjoyed this post and the comments, Margot.
    I do like a literary allusion, such as Rennie Airth’s The Blood-Dimmed Tide and Michael Gilbert’s The Crack in the Tea-cup.
    In my own experience the title is either obvious straight way or I have endless trouble deciding on it. Best of all is when the title comes first as with a short story I wrote called ‘Don’t You Hate Having Two Heads?’ It was the title of a surrealist painting, which was also the starting point for the story.

    • Oh, that is a great title, Christine! It’s really intriguing and different. You’re right too that literary allusions can make for good title choices as well. I’ve had one or two experiences of thinking of titles first, and that can be helpful when you’re putting a story together. And sometimes, I get stuck for titles myself; when that happens, it seems my final choice is never quite as good as the titles that I think of in one of those rare flashes of idea. Thanks for the kind words.

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