Allan J. Emerson

Allan Emerson's Blog

What’s in a name? Plenty, when we’re talking about books…

July 21, 2015

Writers are always searching for apt titles for what they write. A good title is a promise, a taste of what’s to come. As a reader, sometimes the title alone is enough to draw me to a book.

Whenever I browse the list of R.L. Stine’s books, The Cuckoo Clock of Doom makes me laugh and want to read the book, even though I’m not in the target audience’s age group.

P.D. James was a writer with a gift for evocative titles. Her first mystery was called Cover Her Face, and another, The Skull Beneath the Skin. Both titles are taken from poems, the first from John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, and the second from a T.S. Eliot poem, Whispers of Immortality.

Another writer who found title inspiration in a poem is Alan Bradley, author of the popular Flavia de Luce series. His title The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches comes from A Night-Piece on Death by eighteenth-century poet Thomas Parnell.

Some writers go for puns as titles, which can make you laugh or groan and sometimes do both at the same time. Mary Daheim, author of the Bed and Breakfast mystery series, called one of her books Bantam of the Opera, and her latest is entitled Here Comes the Bribe. Kate Kingsbury, who writes a series that takes place in the fictional Pennyfoot Hotel, has books called Room with a Clue, and Ring for Tomb Service. My favorite pun title is from Golden Age crime queen Ngaio Marsh whose novel Died in the Wool featured the discovery of a victim on a sheep farm.

Eye-catching titles seem to go with the territory in Science Fiction. There’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, and Robopocalypse, by Daniel H. Wilson. I recently read Hugh Howey’s Wool, which unlike Marsh’s book has nothing to do with sheep and everything to do with a totalitarian regime where humans live in silos.

A title that flies in the face of your mother’s advice is Margaret Schulte’s Strangers Have the Best Candy, her humorous take on why you should talk to strangers. It won the 2014 Bookseller/Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year, no mean feat when you consider it was up against Working Class Cats, and Are Trout South African?

For a really audacious title, nothing can compare to the Dave Eggers memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Eggers said he chose the title because critics would have to use it in their reviews, thus ensuring at least one good quote for the book’s dust jacket. No doubt he was speaking tongue-in-cheek, but for a second or two I wondered if my book, Death of a Bride and Groom, would benefit from the same approach. Something like Allan J. Emerson’s Brilliant Mystery Death of a Bride and Groom, maybe? Nah, too long…

What’s your favorite title? Have you picked up a book, or not chosen one because of the title?

I show up here every Tuesday and I hope you will too. And please hit the Comment button and let me know what you think about the topic of the day.


  1. July 21, 2015 12:46 PM PDT
    My favorite book title is from Connie Willis's amazing time-travel, TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG. It, in turn, comes from the subtitle of Jerome K. Jerome's classic, THREE MEN IN A BOAT, to Say Nothing of the Dog. And then there's the charming epistolary novel, THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY, which I read partly because of its title, and partly because I was about to embark on a cruise that would make a stop at Guernsey.
    - Sheri Cobb South
  2. July 21, 2015 2:40 PM PDT
    I got the idea for my title THE TRUTH SLEUTH from a comment made in another author's mystery novel. The same thing happened when I wrote TEA LEAVES AND TAROT CARDS. The comments struck me as so clever that I wanted to use them as titles. One thing--when selecting a title it's best to run it through Amazon as well as World Cataloguing just to make certain the title hasn't been overused by other authors.
    - Jacqueline Seewald
  3. July 21, 2015 2:45 PM PDT
    I agree that it's a good idea to make sure the title hasn't been used, at least not recently.

    By the way, when I couldn't think of a title for John Pickett #4, I had a contest on my Facebook page. DINNER MOST DEADLY was suggested by a reader, and when I got my ARCs, I sent her one as a prize.
    - Sheri Cobb South
  4. July 21, 2015 3:47 PM PDT
    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night is a title that grabbed my interest, but it was difficult to tell others. More often than not I'd get the words tangled up, so after a while I asked others if they'd read "The dog Incident" book.
    - Maris
  5. July 21, 2015 4:16 PM PDT

    I've read some of these too, and enjoyed them. I also run potential titles through Amazon to see if they're in recent use, but I'll bet some of the ones mentioned above are unique. I just thought of someone I wish I'd included. Tom Robbins is a writer with some memorable titles, including Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, and Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates.

    - ----------------------------------------------
  6. July 22, 2015 9:08 AM PDT
    My title of Bubba Done It was inspired by a golf tourney my husband played in. One group of golfers forgot to turn in their score card so a helpful fellow said "I know him," and went to the doorway and shouted "Bubba!" about 4 guys turned around, which my husband thought was hysterical. I used the commonality of that name in a twist - a murder victim names his killer in his dying breath. Best of luck with your book sales!
    - Maggie Toussaint
  7. July 22, 2015 10:23 PM PDT

    Thanks, Maggie. "Bubba" sounds odd to my ears, but I gather it's not uncommon in the U.S., especially in the south. Means something like "good ol' boy," I'm told--is that right?

    Best of sales to you too Maggie!
    - --------------------------------------------

Short Story
Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine