An 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.