Christopher Brookmyre on sinking or swimming with titles

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by Christopher Brookmyre

For the first time in my career, I find myself having to publish a novel in the US under a title different to the original. Bred in the Bone, the third book in my Jasmine Sharp trilogy (after Where the Bodies are Buried and When the Devil Drives), was published in the UK under the title Flesh Wounds, but an alternative was required by Grove Atlantic because they already have a novel of that name on their list.

This is a relatively rare problem for me, and when you consider that my previous novels have included Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks, One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night and A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away, you’ll probably understand why. The switch to a more sensible title comes with its risks, it seems.

Titles have been a major consideration for me throughout my career and indeed since long before it began. When I was at school, my English homework one weekend was to write a short story entitled “On the Run.” I tackled this assignment with the alacrity of a pupil who liked few things more than writing fiction, but it would be fair to say I was less enthused by the titular stipulation. To my precocious sensibilities, this was like telling a Michelin-starred chef to cook the dish of his choice, but insisting it be served with instant mash. I thus titled my story “Last Flight  of the Titan,” after the code-name of my defecting Russian spy protagonist, adding the subtitle: or, “On the Run,” engaging perhaps the most arch emphasis a thirteen-year-old ever placed upon two pairs of inverted commas.

See, to me, a title has always been where a story begins, the first question you will pose the reader, the initial hook to get their interest, and a dull, clichéd or just too-obvious title strikes me as a big deficit to recover from.

As a writer, the title is a constant reminder of the ambitions of the book: once you’ve set out to write a novel called All Fun And Games Until Somebody Loses An Eye, it’s incumbent upon you to reflect in the prose and narrative the manic energy, irreverence and excitement suggested by the name.

Not everybody sees it this way, however. James Patterson, for instance, seems to have made pointedly unoriginal titles something of a trademark, with efforts including Judge and Jury, Cat and Mouse, Roses are Red and—all together now—Violets are Blue. Another of his titles, Cross Fire had already adorned several other works prior to his use of it, but to point to its lack of originality is to misunderstand its purpose.

James Patterson’s books are largely sold in supermarkets, by the kilogram rather than by individual folio, which is why the title’s very dullness actually functions as a form of branding: a guarantor that the book will not challenge the reader’s sensibilities or subvert many of their expectations. A boring and hackneyed title thus acts as a form of reassurance to the target market that the book will do exactly as it says on the tin, and only what it says on the tin.

Compare and contrast with the titles of Val McDermid, for instance, which concisely communicate crime and mystery, but in an intriguing, literate, even poetic manner: Killing the Shadows. A Darker Domain. The Mermaids Singing. The Wire in the Blood.

Crime writers have also been inventive in creating thematic consistency between titles, as Mark Billingham did so successfully with his first three novels, Sleepyhead, Scaredy Cat and Lazy Bones. However, Mark also showed the good judgment to abandon the motif of playground epithets once it had served its purpose, otherwise Inspector Thorne might have been obliged to contend with Smelly Pants and Specky Four-Eyes. The titles of the American crime writer Sue Grafton illustrate the pitfalls of becoming tied to what must have seemed a great idea when she published A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar and C is for Corpse. Not so great by the time you’ve passed K is for Kicking the Arse Out of It and reached P is for Please Dear Editor, Can I Stop This Now? As a fellow novelist I can vividly imagine her awareness that she is counting down the letters before she has to come up with a plot in which a crucial role is played by a xylophone.

Not that I haven’t made a few missteps myself. Midway through writing A Snowball in Hell, a satire on celebrity culture, I toyed with changing the book’s name to The Great Grease-Tailed Shaven Pig Hunt, after a quote from Davie Crocket regarding the elusive nature of fame. Even at the time, I had to concentrate before relating this title, so my editor reasoned that if the book’s author struggled to remember it, this wouldn’t augur well for prospective readers inquiring after it in bookshops. In the event, I deferred to my editor, as any sensible author does, because not only is my editor’s judgment impeccable, but creatively speaking, she knows where the bodies are buried.

Hmm. Where the Bodies Are Buried. Now that sounds like a great title.

Brookmyre author photo Bred in the Bone coverCHRISTOPHER BROOKMYRE is one of Britain’s leading crime novelists. He has won many awards for his work, including the Critics’ First Blood Award, the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, and the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Award.  He has worked as a journalist for several British newspapers and is the author of fifteen novels, including When the Devil DrivesWhere the Bodies Are Buriedand Not the End of the World. His most recent novel, Bred in the Bone, is out May 6 from Grove Atlantic. 

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Author Photo: www.brookmyre.co.uk

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