Category Archives: John D. MacDonald

And We Had to Go Our Separate Ways*

Returning After AbsencesA lot can happen to a person, even in a short time. So when someone goes away for a while and then reappears, there’s no telling what might have happening during that absence. This scenario can be really effective in a crime novel. For one thing, those questions and that speculation can make a fictional character all the more interesting. And sometimes, what happens during those absences plays a role in a present-day story.

Fans of Agatha Christie will know that her life included a real-life disappearance and return. She went missing for eleven days at the end of 1926, and was found staying at a hotel under an assumed name. Christie herself never published the reason for her disappearance, so there’s been a lot of speculation about it. Whatever the reason, it certainly added to her mystery.

We see that plot thread in some of her work, too. For example, in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder For Christmas and A Holiday For Murder), Poirot is staying with a friend over the Christmas holiday. He gets drawn into a case of murder when Simeon Lee, who lives not very far away, is killed on Christmas Eve. There are plenty of suspects, too, as his family is gathered for the holiday. And, in classic Golden Age fashion, Lee was both wealthy and very unpleasant. One of the suspects is Lee’s son Harry, who hasn’t visited the family home in twenty years. He’s spent most of that time living in out-of-the-way places and cabling for money when he runs out. His long absence and sudden return have upset his brother Alfred, who’s always resented Harry. That thread of tension adds a layer to this novel, as does the mystery of what Harry’s been doing all these years. And the absence adds to Harry’s character.

In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, we meet Nora Wright, daughter of social leaders John F. and Hermione Wright. Three years before the events of the novel, she was planning to marry Jim Haight; he jilted her, though, and disappeared. Now he’s back, and to everyone’s consternation, he and Nora rekindle their relationship. Ellery Queen has been using a guest house on the Wright property as a writing retreat, so he’s on hand to see the impact that Haight’s return has on the family. Everyone hopes the relationship will end; instead, Nora and Jim marry. Then, Jim’s sister Rosemary comes for an extended visit. No-one likes her very much, but she seems ‘dug in’ to stay for a while. Then, on New Year’s Eve, she is killed by what turns out to be a poisoned cocktail. For several reasons, Haight is the most likely suspect, and everyone is satisfied that he’s guilty. In fact, only Queen and Nora’s sister Pat believe there could be any other explanation. Queen looks into the matter and finds out what really happened; it turns out that Haight’s absence, and what happened during that time, play a role in the mystery.

John D. MacDonald’s The Deep Blue Goodbye introduces readers to his sleuth, ‘salvage consultant’ Travis McGee. He’s the last hope for those who’ve been cheated out of money or property and want it returned. In this novel, McGee’s friend, dancer Chookie McCall, asks him to help one of the members of her dance troupe. Catherine Kerr has lost something and wants it back. The only problem is, she doesn’t know what ‘it’ is. She tells McGee that she got a visit from a man named Junior Allen, who had known her father. Allen ingratiated himself with her, and before long, they were a couple. Then Allen disappeared, only to return some months later, a great deal richer. He then took up with another woman, only to disappear again. Kerr is certain that Allen stole something of her father’s, and that that accounts for his wealth. But she has no idea what that something might be. In order to recover his client’s property, McGee will have to not only find Allen, but also trace what he was doing during his absence. And that turns out to be a very dangerous task.

Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed takes a slightly different perspective on being gone for a time and then coming back. Douglas Brodie has just returned from service in World War II, and is now trying to start his life again in London. Then he gets a call from an old Glasgow friend Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan. It seems that Donovan’s been arrested for the murder of a young boy Rory Hutchinson, and is scheduled to be executed in four weeks. Brodie doesn’t know what he can do to help, but for the sake of his friendship with Donovan, he agrees to at least ask a few questions. One of the threads that runs through this novel is the relationship between Brodie and Donovan. They grew up together, and they saw military service together. But they haven’t seen each other in a while, and neither knows what the other’s been doing. So, although Donovan claims he’s innocent, Brodie can’t know for sure, especially at first, whether he is. Even as he’s talking to people and exploring other possibilities, he isn’t convinced his old friend was framed.

And then there’s D.S. Nelson’s Model For Murder, which takes place in the village of Tuesbury. The town is rocked by a series of murders, beginning with the local newsagent, Harold Slater. Retired milliner Blake Heatherington gets drawn into the case when Slater’s partner Steve Pensthorpe asks him to investigate. At first Heatherington demurs, saying that the police are much better equipped to do the job. But his curiosity is piqued. It’s even more so when he learns of some apparent vandalism going on at the local model village Little Tuesbury. A small cross has been painted on the door of the model newsagent’s, and the figure representing Slater has disappeared. As other murders occur, the same thing happens with their model businesses and the figures that represent them. Is this a case of Voodoo, as some whisper? Or is it something more prosaic? The closer Heatherington gets to the truth, the more danger he is in of being the next victim. Throughout this novel, there’s an interesting plot thread concerning Heathington’s friendship with Rufus Blackwood. The two grew up together, but then Blackwood left the area. He returned for early retirement ten years ago, but the two haven’t really picked up their friendship. And it’s interesting to see how Blackwood’s absence plays a role in the way they relate to each other now:
 

‘Rufus Blackwood is my oldest friend, living in Tuesbury, that is; and yet I know very little of him these days. We grew up together…and we went our separate ways.’
 

It’s actually Blackwood’s commissioning of a hat from Heatherington that gets the two talking again.

And that’s what happens when people leave, or go missing, and then return. You never know what’s really happened in their lives.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s James.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, D.S. Nelson, Ellery Queen, Gordon Ferris, John D. MacDonald

I Went Down to the Chelsea Drugstore*

PharmaciesYou probably visit them without even thinking about it. Perhaps you have a cold, or need a headache remedy. If you’ve been to see a doctor, you may have a prescription. Yes, I’m talking about pharmacies. Today’s larger pharmacy chains, such as Boots, Walgreen’s, PharmaChoice and Amcal, offer a lot more than medicine, too. You can get just about anything from lotions to cereal to small appliances. At the pharmacy nearest where I live, you can even get your passport ‘photo taken.

Of course, the concept of what a pharmacy is and does is different across cultures. And those ideas have changed considerably over time. But in whatever form, pharmacies play important roles in our lives – and in our crime fiction. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie fans will know that she had a background in chemistry and pharmaceuticals. So it’s little wonder that she makes use more than once of the chemist’s and the hospital dispensary. For instance, in After the Funeral, Hercule Poirot looks into the untimely, if not unexpected, death of Richard Abernethie. When the members of Abernethie’s family gather for his funeral, his younger sister Cora Lansquenet blurts out that he was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up; even she asks the family to ignore what she said. But privately, all of her relatives begin to wonder whether she’s right. The wondering turns to certainty when Cora herself is murdered the next day. One of the ‘people of interest’ in this mystery is Gregory Banks, nephew-by-marriage to both Abernethie and his sister. Banks is a chemist’s assistant who, it turns out, has a questionable history. It is said that he once offered to sell a customer poison to kill her husband. And when Poirot meets Banks, he learns that the man is psychologically very fragile. Now Poirot has to decide whether that means Banks is the killer. I know, I know, fans of Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client) and of The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

In Michael Collins’ short story Who?, we learn about Boyd Conners, a young man whose job is making deliveries from a local drugstore. One day, he suddenly dies of what seems to be a heart attack. He was in very good health, and not a drug user, so his mother is convinced that there’s something more to his death. She visits PI Dan Fortune to ask him to investigate. As Fortune begins to look into the case, he learns that there are a few possibilities. For one thing, there’s the victim’s romantic rival Roger Tatum. There’s also a local group of hoodlums who might have wanted him dead. As it turns out though, the actual killer is someone who isn’t even a suspect.

In the US, drugstores used to be more than just places to purchase aspirin. They used to be social gathering places. We see that, for instance, in John D. MacDonald’s short story The Homicidal Hiccup. Walter Maybree has purchased the local drugstore, and wants to keep it a safe ‘clean’ place for young people to meet, and for families to do their pharmacy shopping. Like many drugstores of the day, it’s got a counter where customers can get milkshakes, ice cream sundaes and other treats. The only problem for Maybree is local crime boss Johnny Howard. Howard and his gang run the town and extort ‘protection money’ from all of the businesses. As if the extortion weren’t enough, the gang wants to make Maybree’s drugstore a place for selling pornography. This Maybree refuses to do. Much to Howard’s surprise, other business owners in the area, who are fed up with the crime gang, stand by Maybree and help him protect his store. Desperate to keep his respect, Howard and his girlfriend Bonny Gerlacher devise a plan. She’ll go to the drugstore disguised as a teen. As she’s sitting at the counter, she’ll use a straw to shoot poison at Maybree, killing him and getting him out of Howard’s way. Things don’t go as expected, though, when a natural human response takes over. Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories will know that drugstores make several appearances in that series. They’re used as places to make telephone calls, have a meal, meet people and get an ice cream soda.

Kerry Greenwood’s Cocaine Blues introduces us to Phryne Fisher. Originally from Australia, she’s been living in London. One evening, an acquaintance, Colonel Harper, asks Phryne to visit his daughter Lydia, who now lives in Melbourne, and see whether she’s all right. It seems from her letters that she’s not in good health, and that her husband may be responsible for that. Phryne agrees and travels to Melbourne. In the course of finding out the truth about Lydia, she unearths a cocaine ring operating in the area. It’s not long before she discovers that the nexus of the ring is a pharmacy in a seedy part of town. So one night, she and her friend Bert Johnson visit the pharmacy to find out for themselves what’s going on there. She knows that she won’t learn anything from just going in well-dressed, and asking questions in an educated accent. So, she pretends to be a very different sort of woman:
 

‘Those pink powders for pale people,’ she finished, and held out her ten shilling note. The man nodded, and exchanged her note for a slip of pink paper, embossed with the title ‘Peterson’s pink powders for pale people’ and containing a small quantity of the requisite stuff. Phryne nodded woozily to him and found her way back to Bert.’
 

It turns out that that visit to the pharmacy provides an important clue.

And then there’s Donna Leon’s Suffer the Little Children. In one plot thread of that novel, Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello has discovered that a local hospital has been in collusion with three pharmacists. Pharmacists sometimes receive a courtesy fee when they schedule their customers for appointments with specialists. Vianello has learned that three pharmacists have been scheduling ‘phantom patients’ in exchange for extra money. Vianello and his boss, Commissario Guido Brunetti, are looking into the matter when there’s a break-in at a pharmacy that adds a whole new dimension to the case.

You might not think about it much, unless you’re not feeling well or you run out of tissues. But pharmacies are an integral part of our lives, even with today’s online ordering. And they can add interesting layers to a crime story.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, John D. MacDonald, Kerry Greenwood, Michael Collins, Rex Stout

I Ain’t Got Much to Lose*

Not Much to LoseIt’s not easy to investigate a murder, even for police and professional PIs, who’ve signed up to do that work and who have some training. It’s even more so for people who haven’t and don’t. Some people – at least fictional characters – investigate because they’re implicated, or because someone they care about is implicated. There are other people though, who get into investigation because they really don’t have anything else in their lives. So they don’t have much to lose, even if they get into danger.

Characters who don’t have a lot to lose sometimes take chances that others wouldn’t. And if that’s not handled well in a story, it can pull the reader out. But these characters also can bring a certain perseverance and focus to a case because they’re not risking families, successful businesses and the like. There are a lot of characters like that in crime fiction. Here are just a few.

When we first meet him in The Sins of the Fathers, Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder has very little to lose, at least from his perspective. He’s a former New York police officer who left the force after a tragic accident in which a seven-year-old girl was shot as Scudder was going after some thieves who’d killed a bartender. As the series begins, Scudder doesn’t have a home life, or even very much of a place to live. He doesn’t have a steady job, either. So he doesn’t have a lot to lose when successful business executive Cale Hanniford asks his help. Hanniford’s estranged twenty-four-year-old daughter Wendy has recently been murdered, and he wants to know the kind of person she’d become. The police have arrested the victim’s roommate Richard Vanderpoel, and there is a great deal of evidence against him. So Hanniford doesn’t want Scudder to solve the crime. He simply wants to know what sort of life his daughter had, and what would have led to her murder. Scudder agrees to at least ask some questions, and begins following leads. The trail leads to the past for both the victim and the alleged killer, and as Scudder looks into the matter, he finds the pattern that has led to the killing.

In Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus, we meet Dr. Duca Lamberti. He’s recently been released from prison, where he served a sentence for euthanasia. He can no longer work as a doctor, so he has nothing much to lose when Pietro Auseri offers to hire him. Auseri’s son Davide has been in a deep depression for almost a year, and can’t seem to stop drinking, despite some time spent in treatment. Lamberti isn’t sure what he can do that professional treatment can’t, but he agrees to take on Davide’s case. Little by little, he gets to know Davide, and learns the reason for the young man’s depression and drinking. Davide blames himself for the death of Alberta Radelli, whose body was found outside of Milan a year earlier. He says that he met her by chance and offered her a ride and a day in Florence. They had an enjoyable day, but when he prepared to return with her to Milan, she begged him to take her with him – to help her escape Milan. He refused, she threatened suicide, and not long afterwards, her body was discovered. Lamberti believes that the only way to free Davide of his demons is to find out the truth about the young woman’s death. With little to lose, that’s exactly what he sets out to do.

Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins also gets drawn into investigating in large part because he doesn’t have much; therefore, he has very little to lose. In Devil in a Blue Dress, we learn that he worked at a wartime factory (this series takes place just after World War II). When the war ended, the factory downsized and he became redundant. When DeWitt Albright needs someone to find a young woman named Daphne Monet, Rawlins sees no real reason not to agree. And he’s well-suited for the task. He knows Los Angeles well, and, being Black, he can ‘blend in’ in the local Black community, which is where the missing woman was last seen. This case draws Rawlins into a web of fraud and murder; it also begins to establish his reputation as someone who can find people and get things done.

Fans of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum will know that she had nothing much to lose when she got started investigating. When Plum discovered that her husband was unfaithful, she got a divorce and took a job in a department store to pay the bills. Then, the department store made cuts in its staff, and Plum was laid off. With no real alternative, Plum took a job at her cousin’s bail bond company. She was supposed to work as a file clerk – a nice ‘safe’ job – but instead, ended up as a bounty hunter. It’s not exactly the job her family dreamed of for her, but it’s certainly never dull.

In Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow), we meet Smilla Jaspersen, a half Inuit/half Danish mathematician and scientist. Although she grew up in Greenland, she now lives in Copenhagen. She has no close ties to anyone, and not very much to lose personally. So she’s got nothing to hold her back, so to speak, when she decides to ask questions about the death of ten-year-old Isaiah Christiansen. He, too, was a Greenlander, and lived in the same building as Jaspersen. One day, so the police say, he was playing on the roof of the building and had a tragic fall that killed him. Jaspersen is drawn to the roof where the accident occurred, and when she looks at it, she notices some things about the snow that aren’t consistent with an accidental fall. The trail leads back to Greenland, and as Jespersen looks into what happened there, she finds that this case is much more than a young boy who fell from a roof.

When we first meet Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor in The Guards, he’s been removed from the Garda Síochána for excessive drinking, which led to an incident involving unprofessional conduct with a speeder. Taylor has some friends, and people he knows, but no really close ties. He doesn’t have much to lose when he decides to hang out his shingle as a PI in Galway. He doesn’t have the money for a posh office or a staff, so he uses his local, Grogan’s, as an office. That’s where Anne Henderson finds him when she goes in search of someone to learn the truth about the death of her daughter Sarah. The police called it suicide, but she knows better. Taylor takes the case and ends up involved in a coverup, multiple killings and more.

Some people make the choice to become professional detectives. But for others, the choice to look into a crime (or crimes) happens because they have no real alternatives and not much to lose by investigating. These are just a few examples (I know, I know, fans of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee). Which ones occur to you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Citizen King’s Better Days (And the Bottom Drops Out). I almost chose a line from Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster’s Me and Bobby McGee; both songs are good matches for the topic, I think.

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Filed under Giorgio Scerbanenco, Janet Evanovich, John D. MacDonald, Ken Bruen, Lawrence Block, Peter Høeg, Walter Mosley

I Never Claimed to be a Hero, And I Never Said I Was a Saint*

Non-Sleuth ProtagonistsMany crime novels are told from the point of view of the sleuth. The sleuth may or may not be a professional (i.e. police or PI), but in either case, we see the story unfolding from that vantage point.

But there are also plenty of crime stories where the protagonist, or at least the narrator, isn’t a sleuth at all. I’m not talking here of those stories where you find out what a serial killer is thinking as the novel goes on, or where the story alternates between the sleuth’s perspective and the murderer’s. Rather, I mean stories where the protagonist or narrator is a different person entirely – sometimes even a criminal.

For instance, John D. MacDonald’s short story Homicidal Hiccup takes place in the small town of Baker City, where Johnny Howard and his gang run everything. Then, Walter Maybree moves to town and buys the local drugstore. He wants to run a clean business without having to pay protection or sell drugs to his teen customers. After a time, several other local business owners join forces with Maybree and help to guard his store. Now Howard faces a big problem. If he allows Maybree to get away with this defiance, he’ll lose respect. And that will likely mean he’ll lose his stranglehold on the crime business in the area. So he desperately wants to get rid of Maybree. He and his girlfriend Bonny Gerlacher devise a plan to do just that. She’ll go into the store posing as a high school student. Then, at just the right moment, she’ll use a drink straw to shoot poison at Maybree. But, as the narrator tells us, things don’t work out the way they plan. In this case, the narrator, ‘though never named, is apparently part of the crime network – someone who’s in on the rivalry and politics of the criminal underground.

Robert Pollock’s Loophole: Or, How to Rob a Bank gives readers an inside look at the plans for a major bank heist. Mike Daniels is a professional thief who, with his teammates, decides to pull off the robbery of a lifetime from London’s City Savings Deposit bank. The bank is well constructed and well guarded, so it’s not going to be easy. In fact, the team will need expert help. This they get from Stephen Booker, an out-of-work architect who’s become desperate for a source of income. Booker is driving a night cab when he meets Daniels for the first time, and before too long, Daniels convinces him to join forces with the thieves. The group puts together a foolproof plan, and at first everything goes smoothly. Then a sudden storm comes up unexpectedly and changes everything for the robbers. This novel is told in the third person, but not from the point of view of the police or of bank officials. Rather, it’s told from the viewpoints of Daniels and Booker. This choice allows the reader to see the intricacies of planning such a robbery. It also gives the reader a fuller and even somewhat sympathetic picture of a professional thief’s life.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we are introduced to retired school principal Thea Farmer. Her original plan was to have a dream home built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains, but poor financial decisions have meant that she’s had to give up that perfect home. She’s been forced to settle for the house next door, a house she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ To add insult to injury, she soon learns that her dream home has been bought and that new people will be moving in. They are Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington, and right from the beginning, Thea doesn’t like them. In fact, she calls them ‘the invaders.’ When Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim moves in with the couple, Thea is prepared to dislike her heartily as well, but slowly she finds herself developing a kind of bond with the girl. That’s especially true when she discovers that Kim is a very promising young writer. Then Thea begins to suspect that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for Kim. Since no actual harm has come to the child, the police aren’t inclined to do anything about it, so Thea works out her own plan for dealing wth the situation. Thea isn’t a professional sleuth; she’s really not a sleuth at all. But we see the events of the story through her eyes, and that gives an interesting perspective on Frank, Ellice and Kim, as well as a fascinating look at how Thea sees herself.

Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow Underworld trilogy (The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, and The Sudden Arrival of Violence) features a different kind of protagonist also. Callum MacLean is a hitman who works for Glasgow crime bosses. He looks at his profession the way most people look at theirs. It’s what he does for a living and he takes pride in doing it well. In fact, although he walks a very thin line at times, given the volatile nature of the underworld, he manages to stay alive and even succeed. His reputation is a good one. The stories are told partly from his point of view, and partly from the points of view of others involved in the underworld. While Mackay doesn’t gloss over what MacLean does, nor what the Glasgow underworld is like, he still shows these people as humans.

And then there’s Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. This novel tells the story of the 1978 death of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan. At first the police suspect that someone in her family may have killed her, as is so often the case. But then, not very long afterwards, another young girl Kelly McIvor is also found dead. Like Angela’s body, Kelly’s is found with a scarf around her neck and head. Now it looks as though a multiple murderer (the press dubs the killer the Sydney Strangler) is at work. Neither murder is solved, and since there are no similar murders after them, the press and therefore the public gradually lose interest. And that’s just fine by Jane Tait, Angela’s cousin. She and her brother Mick and their parents have had to live with the aftermath of Angela’s death, and for her, it’s just as well people don’t really ask her about it any more. That is, until journalist Erin Fury decides to make a documentary about the effect of murders on the family left behind. Reluctantly, and mostly because her daughter Jess wants her to, Jane decides to talk to Erin. Through her eyes, as well as those of some other family members, we learn the truth about what really happened to Angela and to Kelly. None of these people is an official investigator, and it’s hard to say that any of them is a protagonist for whom we’re supposed to cheer. That choice allows James to slowly reveal what happened and what went on behind the news stories and police reports of the day.

And that’s what makes such protagonists/narrators interesting. They can show readers what a case is like from a very different perspective. And it’s an innovative approach to telling a crime story. Which stories like this have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Temptation.

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Filed under John D. MacDonald, Malcolm Mackay, Robert Pollock, Virginia Duigan, Wendy James

But Try at Least to Pick a Selling Title*

BookTitlesWhen it comes to getting readers’ attention, a well-chosen book title can be at least as important as the cover is. So I thought it might be interesting to take a bit of a closer look at the titles of crime novels. After all, when we read a review and put a book on the TBR or wish list, it’s the title and/or author we try to remember.

Most authors know that a good title has something to do with the the story, and sometimes that’s done very cleverly. For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s title The Adventure of the Dancing Men is attention-getting on the surface. It also has everything to do with the story. This adventure is about a woman Elsie Cubitt, who starts to get mysterious cryptic messages in the form of stick figures posed in various positions, as though they were dancing. The messages clearly frighten her, but she won’t tell her husband Hilton what they mean or why they’re being sent. So Cubitt asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate. The solution involves decrypting the messages, so the title turns out to be very much related to the story.

Sometimes titles are a little (or even very) unusual. For instance, Christopher Brookmyre’s title Quite Ugly One Morning isn’t your typical title. It has to do with an investigative journalist Jack Parlabane, who returns from Los Angeles to his native Edinburgh. He locks himself out of his flat one morning and ends up stumbling onto a brutal crime scene. That gets him drawn into the crime’s investigation and deeper into a web of greed and coverup than he imagined. What’s interesting is that although the title is unusual, it’s also closely related to the story itself. Admittedly, there are titles that are a lot more unusual than that one, but it should serve to show you what I mean.

Some authors ‘brand’ their series (or their publishers do) through the titles. I’m thinking for instance of Sue Grafton’s ‘alphabet series’ and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, which uses a different colour in each title. There there’s ‘Nicci French’s’ series in which each title includes a day of the week. I’m sure you know of other examples of this sort of ‘branding.’ That can make it easy for a reader to look for the next title in a series, and keep track of a longer series.

Authors are often advised to keep their titles short and fairly easy to remember, and that’s logical when you think about it.
Shorter titles can often look much neater and less ‘cluttered’ on a cover, and it’s easier for readers to keep them in mind. For a similar reason, authors are usually advised not to use subtitles, although of course, they’re out there.

As I thought about that, I wondered how long titles of crime novels actually are. So I decided to look more closely at that question. I looked at the titles of 215 crime novels – books that I’ve used for my ‘spotlight’ feature. So as you read on, do keep in mind that this is a limited data set. The total population of crime novels might show something different. I divided the books into three categories: books with two or fewer words in the title; books with three to five words in the title; and books with titles longer than five words. Here’s what I found.

 

Length of Book Title
 

As you can see, the great majority (131, or 69%) have titles of between three and five words. That includes words such as at, of, and the. And 70 (32.5%) have one- or two-word titles. Of my data set, only 14 (6.5%) had titles longer than five words. It makes sense to have short, crisp titles, so that finding didn’t particularly surprise me.

Crime novels of course deal with, well, crime, at least most of the time. And very often that crime is murder. So you’d think that most of the titles in the genre would reflect that, and that there’d be a lot of titles with crime-related words in them. So I decided to look into that question. I looked at the titles of 215 books that I’ve used for my ‘Spotlight’ feature to see what kinds, if any, of ‘murder-related’ words there were in the title. Here’s what I found.

 
Words in Titles

 

You can see clearly that most of the titles actually don’t mention murder, killing, bodies or weapons. In fact, 79% of them (169 books) don’t say anything about crime. Some of the titles (19/9%) do mention death, die, dying or another variant of that word. But as you’ll notice, comparatively few mention crime-related words such as blood, murder, knife, and so on. I wonder if that’s so that crime writers and readers can be a bit less obvious about our interest in these devious doings… ;-)

What’s your view about titles? Do you find yourself attracted to very unusual titles? Do you notice when a title is really short or long? Does that affect your interest? If you’re a writer, how do you decide what title you’ll choose for your work?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Concretes’ Fiction.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christopher Brookmyre, John D. MacDonald, Nicci French, Sue Grafton