Do you ever get bookstore whiplash? You’re walking casually down the aisle, scanning the titles, when you stop dead in your tracks and whip your head around, thinking, Did I really just see that? Or possibly just What the…? After all, it’s the combination of the title and cover art that attracts the casual browser in the first place. You’ve spotted a title that is begging, even if it’s just long enough for you to read the blurb on the back, to be picked up.
I realize now there are a few categories of titles that cry out to me.
I’m a fan of comic mysteries, so funny or punny titles are likely to get a glance from me. When I saw the title Crouching Buzzard, Leaping Loon by Donna Andrews, I just had to check it out, and I became an instant fan. She followed this up with We’ll Always Have Parrots and Owls Well That Ends Well. Punsters rejoice! Then there’s Burglars Can’t Be Choosers by Lawrence Block, the first in his Bernie Rhodenbarr series, and the Magdalena Yoder series by Tamar Myers with horrible (by horrible, I mean good) puns like Gruel and Unusual Punishment, Hell Hath No Curry, and Batter Off Dead.
Even more than puns or funny titles, I’m likely to pick up titles that are just plain weird. How can you pass by Bimbos of the Death Sun, or Zombies of the Gene Pool, both by Sharyn McCrumb? (And which are evidently the sum total of her series featuring science fiction writer Jay Omega.) Or how about The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse by Robert Rankin? Don’t you just need to find out what it’s about?
Being me, anything with the word cat in the title deserves a look. Garrison Allen wrote a delightfully goofy series in the 90’s featuring Big Mike, a massive Abyssinian in titles like Desert Cat, Baseball Cat, and Dinosaur Cat. Of course I had to check out The Cat Who… series by Lilian Jackson Braun and Murder, She Meowed by Rita Mae Brown, as well as How to Wash a Cat by Rebecca Hale and Cat in a Jeweled Jumpsuit by Carole Nelson Douglas. My favorite cat –titled series, though, is the Joe Grey series by Shirley Rousseau Murphy, including the titles Cat on the Edge, Cat Raise the Dead, and Cat Laughing Last. (Just because the word cat is in the title doesn’t necessarily mean cats are involved, as I was happy to learn in the case of Dead Cat Bounce by Sarah Graves.)
In a much smaller category are titles that strike me as poetic. When the Sacred Ginmill Closes by Lawrence Block is a good example of a poetic title, as is The Skull Beneath the Skin by P.D. James, A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters, and An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears. In each of these cases, the title doesn’t tell me anything about the story, as far as I can tell, but it piques my interest and I want to find out what these delightfully combined words mean.
My last category is the hardest to describe. There are some titles that appeal to me because they’re a little spooky, a little macabre, a little… psychologically off. I read The Strange Files of Fremont Jones by Dianne Day simply because the title gave me a little shiver, and it didn’t disappoint. Same for The Alienist by Caleb Carr, and The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. All of these books have characters that are mentally disturbed and more than a little scary, and I think the part of me that used to be a fan of horror fiction is looking for some of the same adrenaline kick I got from that genre.
There’s a reason I suddenly started thinking about why certain titles appeal to me. I was going on a trip recently, and wanted to get something to read on the plane. I was in a used bookstore and grabbed the first thing that appealed to me: Tainted Blood by Arnaldur Indridason. (Shiver.) The title, along with the cover art of an empty swingset covered in snow, appealed to my macabre side.
It wasn’t until I was on the plane that I looked closer at the book and the little note that said, “Previously published as Jar City.” “Um…hmm,” I thought, “I’m pretty sure I read a book called Jar City a few years back, which I picked up because it was an award winner, and the story looked interesting. And it appears I will be reading it again.” So, if you’re going to judge a book by its cover, be sure to double-check its title.
Top image via postmodernbarney
Cindy Harkness is a librarian, an advocate for rescued animals, and totally addicted to true crime television programs.