Titled Gentry

Jeffrey Cohen

There has been much talk this week, at least on DorothyL about titles. Not like “Lord” or “Duke” or my particular favorite, “Viscount” (doesn’t that sound like it should cost less than the other titles?), but titles of books. In particular, mystery books.

Now, whatever meager reputation I have in the world of mystery publishing (a great term, implying the publisher will be surprised by what comes out) is based at least partially on the fact that people remember my titles.

Or, they think they do, but we’ll get back to that.

I’m not one to brag–unless I’m awake–but I’ve had other mystery authors approach me and ask how I write my titles. There have been times I’ve considered hiring myself out to write titles, and then I remember that other authors probably can’t afford me any more than I can. The point is, my titles have gotten some attention, of the positive kind, and that leads to a consideration of what makes a title work, or not work.

The four titles I’ve written so far for mystery novels have been meant to convey a sense of humor, that the books would be fun. But they were also designed to impart information.

For Whom The Minivan Rolls: Because it was the first book in the Aaron Tucker series, this title had to convey a lot of information to readers who had never heard of me, or Aaron, before (this, by the way, still applies to more than 99.9 percent of the population, but I’m working on it). I wanted the idea that this was a mystery novel to be communicated, and the fact that the title is, even in a silly way, ominous (and the subsequent fact that the subtitle was “An Aaron Tucker Mystery“, duh!) got that factoid across. But I also wanted it known that this was a comical mystery, and since I think “minivan” is a funny word–otherwise the proper title would be For Whom the SUV Rolls, which is a lot less mellifluous–that was accomplished, too. And since the humor was derived from a suburban point of view, “minivan” once again helped. The fact that the first scene in the book portrays a woman being threatened by a minivan was a complete coincidence.

{By the way, this is the title that people most often misquote to me: “I just loved your book, Where The Minivan Rolls!” “Today on ‘BookTalk,’ Jeff Cohen, author of For Whom the Minivan Tolls.” “Great Big Generic Bookseller is proud to present Jeff Cohen, author of The Minivan Rolls For Thee.” So, maybe I’m not as good at titles as I thought I was.}

A Farewell to Legs: The second Hemingway parody, entirely unintentional. I had never set out to do Hemingway titles. But once the victim in the sequel to whatever that last book was called became “Crazy Legs Gibson” (and no, Mel was not the intended victim in that book; the name’s a coincidence), the title was set. It’s still the one I have trouble saying with a straight face.

As Dog Is My Witness: Well, the fact is, there’s a dog in this book. And she is, indeed, present when the victim is shot. And despite the fact that she doesn’t actually talk, she does–in a very doggy fashion–help solve the crime. And besides, one of the subplots has Aaron dealing with the difference between celebrations of Christmas and Chanukah, so religion, in some sick, twisted way, had a small part in this book. So the pun is appropriate.

Some Like It Hot Buttered: There’s still some confusion as to whether there should be a hyphen between “hot” and “buttered.” I think it’s going without, but don’t hold me to it. Well, the new Comedy Tonight series takes place in a small movie theatre, and the victim in this one is poisoned while eating popcorn. Do the math.

But now, I have to write the second book in the Comedy Tonight series, and I’ve once again established unintentional precedents. I want the new one to be a play on a classic comedy film title, but also to have some relevance to the plot, which involves feuding ex-comedy partners, now quite elderly (think The Sunshine Boys, where Walter Matthau kills George Burns–but funny).

Got any ideas?

6 thoughts on “Titled Gentry

  1. Ron Estrada

    Titles are the first thing that attracte me to a book. More authors should put more effort into them. The first book of my current series is title “Murder on the Side.” Since my protag runs a diner, it seemed fitting. And since it’s technically a light-hearted mystery, it conveys that as well. I spend a lot of time on my titles, and I’ll probably end up changing this one as I get closer to the end. But you’re right, it must be memorable.

  2. Beatrice Brooks

    Heck, Jeff, your next title is easy:


    or how about…




    Okay, that last one doesn’t really tell what the book’s about, but…

    Hugs,Deni[Denise Dietz]

  3. Mark Terry

    I was thinking: “Footsie.”

    Hmmm, twists on classic comedies or at least, funny twists on movie titles. This screws me up because my own personal movie history doesn’t go back much further than about 1980 if you don’t count Disney films…

    “Bedpans and Swizzle Sticks”

    Ah well. I’ll give it some thought.


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