Talking Titles

It’s either one step above or one step below judging a book by its cover, but say what you will – titles matter. They matter a whole lot in the noir fiction world since back when the stands used to be filled with the salacious come-ons of pulp fiction femme fatales in lace brassieres and a bold-type title announced the goings on inside, and they matter just as much today.

The old titles didn’t hold much back – Say It With Bullets, Dig Me A Grave, Kiss My Fist – and they succeeded in convincing people to lay out a dime for the tale that went with it. Quite often the book inside the lurid cover couldn’t deliver on the promise and therefore the pulps are littered with titles that are better than the 30 – 40,000 words that followed. There’s a reason not many of those books are around anymore and it ain’t the cheap paper.

Film Noir also loves a good title and they often follow the same rule of thumb that the more outrageous the sales pitch, the worse the movie. Double Indemnity isn’t as sexy as, say, I Wouldn’t Be In Your Shoes, but which is a better film? You guessed correctly. (not that I don’t have a sot spot for any movie based on a Cornell Woolrich story and starring Regis Toomey)

Speaking of James M. Cain, in addition to Indemnity he proved himself a really dull title-maker despite writing some of the best books of the era. I, for one, have never quite gotten the appeal of the title The Postman Always Rings Twice, even though I love the book. Mildred Pierce is just a name, and the name Mildred at that. Quite possibly the least alluring name in history. But I sure as hell would recommend it over something like A Dame Called Murder or Dames Can Be Poison.

None of the giants of classic Noir fiction (Chandler, Cain, Hammett) turned out iconic titles, save maybe for The Big Sleep. Most of the real grabbers were by the grunts, the guys and gals who churned out book after book of gritty pulpy goodness and needed that blinking neon light to set their story of murder and mayhem apart.

Two guys who got it right were Cornell Woolrich and Mickey Spillane. Woolrich relied a little too heavily on his go-to of just slipping black in the title somewhere as in The Bride Wore Black, Rendezvous in Black, The Black Angel, Black Alibi, The Black Curtain, The Black Path of Fear, but he also got it right with Phantom Lady, Waltz Into Darkness, Deadline At Dawn. And those are just the novels, the short stories are great examples too – witness Three Kills For One, The Case of the Killer-Diller or Death Sits in the Dentist’s Chair. Okay, maybe not that last one.

Spillane came up with titles to perfectly suit his hard charging P.I., Mike Hammer, and Spillane’s output is pure what-you-read-is-what-you-get.  My Gun Is Quick, Vengeance Is Mine, The Big Kill (which always struck me as a bit of an FU to Chandler like Mickey was saying, “Don’t try to hide behind the words – out with it! It’s about killing, not sleeping.”)

In our modern world of marketing and focus groups, wordy titles have become as poisonous as that aforementioned dame. Short, punchy and easy to remember often rule the day. I can see the appeal. Sometimes all it takes is a one-word title to tell you everything you need to know. Strip. Beat. Savages – they all work. I find myself drawn to wordier titles still. A Trace of Smoke, A Bad Day For Sorry, A Drop of the Hard Stuff and one of the best in recent memory The Mystic Arts Of Erasing All Signs Of Death– all tell a vivid tale of the world within.

My co-author, JB Kohl, and I went wordy with our first novel, One Too Many Blows To The Head. It always seems to get a reaction, usually a smile, but people also know what to expect from the book. The bloody boxing gloves on the cover help too. Our working title, Fist, went the opposite way. Ultimately it just didn’t have the (pardon me here) punch we wanted and after I lifted the title of a song I loved (and a reasonably well-worn popular expression) we had a match that felt right for the story.

I also like titles that play off the content of the book. Think Marcus Sakey’s Good People or Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan, nothing could be further from the truth but the counterpoint works. I haven’t read it yet, but from what I know about Duane Swierczynski’s work, I’ll assume Fun and Games contains neither.

Then there are titles that quickly identify an author or a style. First are the easy ones like series work that strives to be easily identifiable like Sue Grafton’s alphabet series, but I always loved the way Jason Starr’s books are all standalones but still make a sort of matched set: Tough Luck, Twisted City, Hard Feelings, Lights Out.

For our latest book JB and I went shorter with Borrowed Trouble. Now, if books had extras like DVDs I would always want to know where the author got the title. It fascinates me. Did Victor Gischler have the title Gun Monkeys first or did it grow out of the story? Did Harry Whittington smile to himself when he came up with Web of Murder or You’ll Die Next?

I can tell you I lifted Borrowed Trouble from a piece on NPR. What’s the opposite of badass noir? I think I’m it.

It turns out there is an expression that has fallen out of a favor in modern times, but lucky for me there was a very old woman on the radio telling her story and lucky for me again I was listening to the podcast while I walked the dog. (what’s one lower than the opposite of badass noir?) She was describing a situation where she did not want to get involved in someone else’s problems and she said, “That’s just borrowing trouble.” I knew it immediately. It fit the story of the book perfectly and it had a little bit of danger to it as well.

I know I’m not the only one who thinks titles matter. I don’t know that it will keep me away from a book with a bad title, but then again if I’m not tempted to pick up a book and learn more about it then it just might. And I have certainly bought used copies of vintage pulps based on bawdy titles and raunchy artwork. So, yes, I have judged books by their covers. Now don’t judge me.

So give, what are some of your favorite titles?

Eric Beetner is the co-author (with JB Kohl) of One Too Many Blows To The Head and the recently released Borrowed Trouble. Also an award-winning short story and screenwriter he is currently nominated for a Derringer award for short mystery fiction. For more info and links to free stories visit