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It's a Mystery 3/20/2012

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TITLE - noun - the distinguishing name of a book.

I have always been intrigued by book titles, particularly those of mystery novels, and wonder how the authors choose a title.  Do they start with a title and then write the book, or is it the other way around?  Maybe they start with a title and as the story changes, so does the title.  Sometimes the publisher changes the title before the book is printed.  Whatever the case, the right title can impact the popularity of the novel.

Take, for example, the titles of the Flavia de Luce series by C. Alan Bradley:  The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, A Red Herring Without Mustard, and I am Half-Sick of Shadows.  Definitely unusual, and the titles don't really give a clue as to what each book is about, but the meanings becomes very clear when you read the books.

Titles cannot be copyrighted, so you may come across books with the same title, but by different authors.  Death Watch is a mystery title used by both Jim Kelly and Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, as well as by YA novelist Ari Berk.  You will find the title Fallen listed in our catalog under three fiction authors, one YA author and mystery writer Kathleen George.  It really helps in instances like these that you know both the title and author, so you end up with the book you want.

Some series titles are as good as a copyright, though.  Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum number series is up to 18 (Explosive Eighteen).  Fiction author James Patterson's Women's Murder Club series uses ordinal numbers (11th Hour is due out in May).  Also easily identified are the fiction titles by John Sandford and his Prey series (Sudden Prey will also be released in May).  There are numerous other examples of authors repeating a word or phrase in their titles to enhance reader recognition.

Sue Grafton's alphabet series (A is for Alibi, up to V is for Vengeance) is another with world-wide recognition.  There are several other mystery authors with alphabet series.  Mary Daheim does double duty by starting all her titles with Alpine and then has gone alphabetically with the second word in each title.  The first is Alpine Advocate and the latest is Alpine Winter.   Another ABC series is by Carole Nelson Douglas and, again, with two twists - she begins almost all the titles with Cat (and most begin with Cat in a ...), then she follows with a phrase that follows alphabetically from the previous title, and she also includes a color (Cat in a Red Hot Rage, Cat in a Sapphire Slipper, and the most current title, Cat in a Vegas Gold Vendetta).

Other easily recognized series are the late Lilian Jackson Braun's The Cat Who... series, J. D Robb's Death collection and Carol Higgins Clark's Regan Reilly books, which are all named with one-word, past tense verbs (Iced, Laced, Wrecked, Zapped, etc and the newest, Gypped, which is due out in April).  Also used as the focal point of some series titles are character names, including Aunt Dimity, Mrs. Jeffries, the Spellmans, and Agatha Raisin.

Many cozy mysteries are well-known for titles that are puns or a play-on-words.  Here is just a small sampling:  The Long Quiche Goodbye, Antiques Maul, Six Geese A-Slaying, Bean There Done That, Merchant of Menace, Midsummer Night's Scream, Withering Heights, She Shoots to Conquer, Slay It With Flowers, Evan Help Us, and Roast Mortem.

Often authors choose their titles from popular expressions (Dead of Winter, Mum's the Word, Thrilled to Death), from hymns and lines from hymns (Out of the Deep I Cry, One was a Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming), and from existing works (Agatha Christie used a number of titles that are associated with the works of Shakespeare).

Mystery author Susan Wittig Albert always includes the name of an herb in her titles (Witches' Bane, Lavender Lies).  Earlene Fowler's books feature the names of quilt patterns (Dove in the Window, Steps to the Altar).  Song titles are used by Jill Churchill in her Grace and Favor series (It Had to be You, Someone to Watch Over Me).

Also, titles can be memorable lines from the book itself.  Louise Penny's Three Pines series is an excellent example of this, with such titles as A Rule Against Murder, A Brutal Telling, Bury Your Dead and A Trick of the Light.  Not only is the title found within the story, but it also reflects on the meaning of the story itself.

When browsing for a new mystery to read, we are often drawn to books by authors we know.  But next time, see if it isn't the title that pulls you in.


New mysteries at WPPL - any interesting titles?

Bowen, Rhys - Hush Now, Don't You Cry (Molly Murphy)

Casey, Elizabeth Lynn - Reap What You Sew (Southern Sewing Circle)

Fowler, Christopher - The Memory of Blood (Peculiar Crimes Unit)

Harris, C. S. - When Maidens Mourn (Sebastian St. Cyr)

Leon, Donna - Beastly Things (Commissario Brunetti)

Parks, Brad - The Girl Next Door (Carter Ross, investigative reporter)

Winspear, Jacqueline - Elegy for Eddie (Maisie Dobbs)


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