Last week I'd opined on some of my favorite mystery titles. Not my favorite books, but rather some of the books that I think have the best titles, and why I like those particular titles so much. This week, some random thoughts on titles in general.
Am I the only one getting tired of in-your-face overly-sequenced titles? Yes, I know that we need to indicate somehow that books are part of a series--Pantheon does that quite well by giving each of the Mma Ramotswe books a different title, with a subtitle that says something along the lines of "More from the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency." I think I even prefer a subtitle along the lines of "An Ignatius Q. Mayflower Mystery" rather than all these cardinal and ordinal numbers. So, let's see, we have:
Janet Evanovich: ONE for the Money, TWO for the Dough, THREE to Get Deadly
James Patterson: 1st to Die, 2nd Chance, 3rd Degree
Lawrence Sanders: The First Deadly Sin, The Second Deadly Sin, The Third Deadly Sin
Kinsey Milhone: A is for Albi, B is for Burglar, C is for Corpse
We also have: colors (Walter Mosley, John D. McDonald), puns on bird names (Donna Andrews), nursery rhymes (Patterson again), past participles (Carol Higgins Clark), one word (Ed McBain). And the list goes on.
I guess from the writer's perspective, there are still plenty of collectives available to choose from: patterns of china; types of cutlery and flatware (A Knife in the Heart, A Spoonful of Murder, Fork It Over or Die); modes of transportation (Death on the Subway; A Murder on Flight 45; The Assassination on Amtrak); alliterative states of the Union (Killing Time in Kansas, The Mysterious Murder in Missouri; Death Comes to Delaware), featuring a hobo who likes to move around the country based on weather patterns; fruits (Death in Apple Valley; The Poisonous Pear; The Terror of Tangelos); vegetables (The Artichoke Murders; Rutabagas for a Dead Man; A Case of Endive Envy).
And, looking at my extensive Dell Shannon collection, I see dozens of titles that really have nothing to do with the books, but are rather generic murder/police procedural titles: Appearances of Death, Scenes of Crime, Felony File, Cold Trail, Chaos of Crime, Spring of Violence, Exploit of Death. This doesn't stop me from liking the 87th precinct books, but I do wish Shannon hadn't phoned in the titles...
And yet ANYTHING is better than those series titles that are so similar to one another that people in a bookstore simply can't remember if they've read the book or not. Far be it from me to complain about J.D. Robb, but I really can't understand why all of those books have to have the word "Death" in the title. Honestly, if you asked me to name any one and describe it specifically, I wouldn't be able to. Ditto for "The Cat Who..." books. It is impossible to tell these books apart...or is that exactly the idea?
I really think a title should grab the reader, not just signal that the book is a "mystery." When I get the manuscript, I want it to pique my interest because it's clever, or strange, or odd, or mysterious. (And yes, puns do get our attention, even if they make us groan). I'll admit that I'm quite all right with a mystery whose title isn't immediately explainable in the first fifty pages of the book, because I always have the title in the back of my mind as one of the mysteris to be solved. The snob in me does like a title pulled from a poem or line from a novel; for some reason, these always seem elegant to me and lend the impression that the writer is a literate, widely read person. I don't like depressing titles, or silly ones (there's a fine line between witty and silly...Tom Robbins seems to have figured out the correct side of the line to stay on).
For series, I like titles that cluster around a theme but don't repeat the same word or concept a thousand times. Elaine Veits has that very interesting series where her heroine works in a different dead-end job in each book. That's clever and nifty. Dorothy L. Sayers never had the same title twice; neither has Ruth Rendell or P.D. James. I can't overcome my prejudice that books that follow a title format are strictly formulaic, and while they certainly do sell (and I publish them), I never take them quite as seriously as I do stand-alones with titles that aren't essentially marketing devices.
Note: This does not mean that you should ever play down your series idea or possible series titles in a query letter! We (publishers, editors, agents) are looking for marketing tools, and it's part of your job to give them to us. Think of this blog entry as being similar to that of a chef who wants to work with unique and different ingredients, but has to satisfy the tastes of a public that prefers chicken pargiana or cheeseburgers on the menu, consistently ignoring the more interesting offerings.