Sunday, September 28, 2008

Mystery Author Ed Lynskey

Please join me in welcoming mystery author, Ed Lynskey. As much as I love funny books, every once in a while I’m in the mood for a real heart pounding, stay-up-all-night, edge-of-your-seat mystery. Like Ed’s awesome P.I. Frank Johnson series. So, Ed, take it away…

Judging a Book by Its Title: How Mysteries Get Named

Like all authors, I spend a lot of sweat and blood drawing up short lists of prospective titles for my crime fiction novels and then pruning the list down to pick the sure-fired winner (hopefully). I do have a few pet peeves on novel titles. They shouldn’t be too long. They should be original without being outrageous. They should be memorable. They shouldn’t be too cute. But then how do I apply all those rules to compile a short list in the first place?

Bob Randisi (founder of the Shamus Awards) has written he searches for a title that’s unique and sticks out in the reader’s mind. I like that advice. I seem to gravitate to the Walter Mosley and John D. MacDonald school by also using colors to create my first two P.I. Frank Johnson titles (The Dirt-Brown Derby, The Blue Cheer). Colors strike an emotional chord in the readers’ minds. One color that doesn’t appeal to me -- and is perhaps overused -- is black, closely followed by the color red.

Sometimes a key phrase can be lifted from the novel’s prose and pressed into service to make a nifty title such as James M. Cain’s masterful noir The Postman Always Rings Twice. I’ll always think of John Garfield starring in the first movie adaptation saying those fatal words in a wooden voice. Reading the title, my first question is why does the postman ring twice? So from the get-go, my curiosity is engaged. That’s salesmanship. Michael Collins (pseudonym for Dennis Lynds) published one of his P.I. Dan Fortune books, Blue Death, from the stark physical description of a drowned victim looking blue.

One-word titles leave me wary. Sure, a single word is easier to remember for the reader (i.e., the buyer), but many one-word titles have already been taken and used over and over. “Deadfall”, for instance, shows up twenty times on Amazon including as a Hardy Boys title before I stopped counting them. On the other hand, Bill Pronzini has released his titles in the excellent, long-running Nameless Detective series under one-word titles, including Deadfall. Go figure.

Sometimes the titles are a skillful play on words. Donna Andrews does this with clever effectiveness (No Nest for the Wicket. We’ll Always Have Parrots. Owl’s Well That Ends Well -- you get the idea). I’m not witty enough to pull this off without sounding clunky and cute, but then my books don’t use a lot of humor either. The vintage Alfred Hitchcock short story anthologies used droll titles (Down by the Old Bloodstream, Behind the Death Ball, both from Dell). But then Sir Alfred was that sort of a personality, so the apt titles worked.

Have you ever had a jingle or phrase bounce around in your head for years? That happened to me in titling my third P.I. Frank Johnson book, Pelham Fell Here. The words appeared on a highway historical marker on the way to Culpeper, Virginia. My grandfather pulled off to the side of the road one day and read the bronze plaque.

That’s why the plaque’s title imprinted on my brain. Pelham is the small town where Frank returns after finishing his military service. Major Pelham, a fallen Confederate war hero, lent his name to the small town. Frank isn’t into hero-worship and casts a jaundiced eye on what’s been going on in Pelham during his absence. Loren D. Estleman wrote me that Pelham Fell Here is a “strong title” which is gratifying to hear. A writer always strives to pick a striking title.

For my P.I. Sharon Knowles short stories reprinted in a collection I wanted something with a gentler tone. A Clear Path to Cross is what shook out of the deliberations. It’s a longer title and I like the image it conveys. A softer edge, Sharon isn’t hardboiled like Frank is. Unlike Frank, Sharon doesn’t have any novels. Yet.

Of course, the final say in the novel’s title is the publisher. It’s right there in the written contract you sign. I’ve been fortunate in none of my titles have been rejected or altered by my publisher. My favorite anecdote on the selection of a novel’s right title is F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald wrangled over a short list of titles that just didn’t ring: Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires, Trimalchio, Trimalchio in West Egg, On the Road to West Egg, Gold-Hatted Gatsby and The High-Bouncing Lover. In the end, The Great Gatsby prevailed and the rest, as they say, is history.

Ed Lynskey


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Gemma and all for having me aboard your cool blog. Good stuff. Much success and good reads to you.

Ed Lynskey

Gemma Halliday said...

Thanks for coming to play with us, Ed! :)


catslady said...

I found that interesting! I always think the author should have more say on titles and covers - after all, it's their baby!

Estella said...

Interesting. Why doesn't an author have more say about the title of their book?

Jordan McCollum said...

Oddly enough, Fitzgerald wanted to change the title to Under the Red, White and Blue at the last minute, but it was too late