“The Importance of Titles” (by Josh Pachter)

Josh Pachter is a frequent contributor to EQMM as both a writer and translator. In both of those capacities he’s found titles an inspiration, as he explains in this post. He’s also a prolific anthologist whose most recent books include The Great Filling Station Holdup: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Jimmy Buffett and Only the Good Die Young: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Billy Joel. —Janet Hutchings

At pretty much every mystery convention I’ve ever attended, at every library panel and online symposium, writers are asked about their “process.” Some say they begin a new piece of fiction by dreaming up a plot, some by imagining a character or characters, some with the selection of a setting or settings.

But I’m the only person I know whose stories—nine times out of ten—begin with a title

In my day job, I teach—among other subjects—public speaking, and one of the basic principles in my field is what we call the “Law of Primacy,” which suggests that audiences will remember second-best whatever they see and hear first. Since the first thing most readers will see is a story’s title, it follows that the title is the second-most-important element in the telling of the tale.

(What, you may ask, is the most important element? That question is answered by the “Law of Recency,” which says that audiences will remember best whatever they see and hear last, suggesting that the most important element of a story is its final paragraph. But that’s a whole ‘nother blog post. . . .)

So, where do the titles I begin with come from?

In most cases, I’ll see a phrase in a newspaper article or read one in a book or hear one (or overhear one) in a conversation and think, Huh, now that’sa story title. Then, once I have a title, all that’s left to do is come up with a plot, some characters, and a setting, and—wallah!—I’ve got a story!

A couple of years ago, for example, my wife Laurie and I went to Paris over my school’s winter term break. I’m used to hearing Paris referred to as “the city of lights,” but Rino, the desk clerk at our hotel, used the phrase “the city of light” as he was checking us in. I asked him about it, and he explained that, though Americans usually pluralize the word “light” when referring to his city, Parisians use the singular. “The City of Light,” I thought, now that’s a story title. (In my story, by the way, the main character stays at the same hotel Laurie and I stayed at—the Hôtel Université in the Rue de l’Université—and the desk clerk who checks her in is named Rino. This is what I believe the French would call un œuf de Pâques.)

“The [Noun] of [Noun]” is a title construction that for some reason resonates with me, and I’ve used it quite a few times. I called two of the Mahboob Chaudri stories I wrote for EQMM during the 1980s “The Tree of Life” (Mid-December 1985) and “The Night of Power” (September 1986), and a third one appeared in Maxim Jakubowski’s The Mammoth Book of Best International Crime as “The Sword of God.” I’ve also done stories titled “The Defenstration of Prague” (for the long-extinctEspionage Magazine), “The Stopwatch of Death” (for a 2020 issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine), and “The Illusion of Control” (forthcoming in Mystery Weekly).

This pattern goes all the way back to ancient Mesapotamia (The Book of Gilgamesh), and it has been used by the Bible (The Book of Genesis), by Shakespeare (The Tragedy of Hamlet), by patron saint of crime fiction Edgar Allan Poe (“The Cask of Amontillado”), by classic mainstream authors such as John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath), and even by our own Ellery Queen, who used it often (The Four of Hearts, The Origin of Evil, The House of Brass, The Lamp of God, and, as Drury Lane, The Tragedy of X, The Tragedy of Y, and The Tragedy of Z).

It’s also possible to vary the pattern slightly, turning it into “The [Adjective] [Noun] of [Noun]” or “The [Noun] of [Adjective] [Noun].” The current issue of EQMM, for example, in addition to my Paris story, also includes Peter Turnbull’s “The Dark Underbelly of Commerce” and William Dylan Powell’s “The Eyes of the Alcalde,” while the current AHMM features Michael Nethcott’s “The Soul of Peg O’Dwyer” and James Tipton’s “The Beast of Easdale Tarn.” My own variants include “The Cremains of the Day” (which was in the 2019 Malice Domestic anthology, Murder Most Edible), “The Supreme Art of War” (from the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime’s Fur, Feathers, and Felonies), “The Beat of Black Wings” (which was in my Joni Mitchell inspired anthology of the same name last year), and “The Yellow Rose of Texas” (from Michael Bracken’s—wait for it!—The Eyes of Texas).

I also think a lot about titles when I translate fiction for EQMM’s Passport to Crime department. Sometimes a straight translation is fine. In the upcoming May/June issue, for example, you’ll find a story by Flemish author Herbert De Paepe. Herbert’s Flemish-language title was “De Bunker,” and the story will be published as, simply, “The Bunker.” Sometimes, though, the original title is cumbersome or not particularly interesting, and I have—always with the original author’s permission—taken some liberties. The February 2015 issue, for example, includes a story by another Flemish author, Bram Dehouck. Bram’s original title was “De Redder en de Dood,” which literally translates into “The Savior and the Death,” or, colloquially, “The Savior and Death.” That seemed ponderous to me, and, given the plot of the story, I suggested borrowing the title of Arthur Miller’s 1964 play, After the Fall. According to American copyright law, titles can’t be copyrighted, so it was perfectly legal for us to “borrow” Marilyn Monroe’s husband’s title for Dorothee Dehouck’s husband’s story, and that’s what we did. 

(Remember the 1971 board game Othello? When it came out, I wrote to the company that manufactured it and asked for permission to write a strategy guide. I didn’t really want to write a strategy guide, but I loved the idea of people walking into bookstores and asking for a copy of Othello. “Oh,” the clerk would say, “you mean Shakespeare?” And “No,” the customer would say, “I mean Pachter.” Sadly, they’d already hired somebody else to write the guidebook, so somebody else got all the glory. . . .)

The current EQMM also contains one of my translations—one of the few times I’ve had both a story of my own and a translation in the same issue. The original title of the story, which was written by Romanian author Bogdan Hrib, was “Crimă de Cartier,” which literally translates as the bland “Neighborhood Murder.” Again, I didn’t think the title did the story justice, and, since the story is set in Bucharest and ends with the capture of a killer, I came up with what I thought —and think!—is a funny and punny alternative: “A Bucharest Arrest.” 

I enjoy a good pun, and I’ve used pun titles for my own fiction, too—see “The Cremains of the Day,” mentioned above, and “Police Navidad,” from the January 2015 EQMM — as well as for other translated stories (such as Fei Wu’s Christmas tale in the January/February 2020 issue, which was originally titled “One Night in Beijing” and which I retitled “Beijingle All the Way”).

While we’re on the subject of changing titles, I really have to bring up Frederic Dannay, who was one half of the Ellery Queen writing team and from its first issue in 1941 until his death in 1982 the guiding force behind EQMM. Mr. Dannay was notorious for changing the titles of stories he bought for the magazine, often without the author’s permission. After he bought my first story, “E.Q. Griffen Earns His Name,” in 1968, Ed Hoch and other frequent contributors—all of whom rightly sang his praises and had enormous respect for his editorial insight—warned me that, if I were to continue to write for EQMM, I’d better get used to the idea that some of my stories would come out with titles I hadn’t given them.

It took me about a year—and about a dozen monthly rejections—to come up with a second story Mr. Dannay liked. Given the existence of an Ellery Queen novel titled Inspector Queen’s Own Case, I thought that a perfect title for E.Q. Griffen’s second case would be—no surprise here—“E.Q. Griffen’s Second Case.” Worried that Mr. Dannay would change that, though, I gambled and submitted the story under a different title. And, sure enough, when it appeared in the May 1970 issue, its forgettable title (which I have myself long since forgotten) had been changed . . . to “E.Q. Griffen’s Second Case”! 

That was the only time I ever put one over on Mr. Dannay, but it wasn’t the only time he changed one of my titles. In 1972, I called a story “S.O.S.” I was really proud of that one, since —at least in my opinion—it subtly foreshadowed an important twist near the end of the story. Mr. Dannay, however, felt that “S.O.S.” didn’t just foreshadow the twist but gave it away, and he renamed the story “The Tip-Off.” I usually agreed with his title changes, but this one time I still think he got it wrong.

After Mr. Dannay passed on and Eleanor Sullivan took over the reins at EQMM, she generally respected contributors’ titles. The one time she changed one of mine was on the fifth Chaudri story she bought from me. It was set in Morocco, on the central square of the city of Marrakesh, and I called it “Jemaa el Fna,” which is the name of the square. I thought that was a wonderful title: evocative, mysterious, almost sensuous. What reader could see that double a in “Jemaa” and the unusual Fn combination in “Fna” and not be immediately swept into the story’s exotic world? When I received my contributor’s copies of the June 1986 issue, though, I saw that Eleanor had changed the title to the boring “The Exchange.” And it’s not just that “The Exchange” was boring, by the way. My first Chaudri story, which had appeared less than two years earlier (in the July ’84 issue), was titled “The Dilmun Exchange.” So the series included both “The Dilmun Exchange” and “The Exchange”—and, honestly, I would have exchanged that second title for just about anything else.

In 1991, Janet Hutchings became only the third editor-in-chief in EQMM’s now eighty-year existence, and in her three decades of helming the magazine she’s never changed any of my titles. As I was preparing this blog post, I asked her if she ever changes any titles. “I have,” she told me, “most often because of their length. One difference between me and Fred in this regard is that I always consult with the author in such a case. But I’ve always been glad I did not ask for a change of title for ‘The Man Who Took His Hat Off to the Driver of the Train’ by Peter Turnbull, which won the Edgar, or ‘Of Course You Know That Chocolate Is a Vegetable’ by Barb D’Amato, which won both the Agatha and Anthony awards. I can’t help feeling those good titles helped gain the attention of judges and award voters.”

I agree with Janet that long titles—if used sparingly—can be particularly interesting. I remember almost nothing from the plot of the movie Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad—except for the fact that some wealthy woman totes her dead husband’s corpse around the world with her—but by gosh I remember that title, word for word! 

My own longest title—so far!—clocks in at a paltry nine words: “When You Sue, You Begin With Do, Ray, Me,” which appeared in the 2019 Bouchercon anthology Denim, Diamonds and Death. My longest EQMM title to date was one word shorter: “The Adventure of the Black-and-Blue Carbuncle,” which came out just a few issues ago, in November/December 2020.

And my shortest title up to now has been only two characters long: “50,” which was in the November/December 2018 issue and finished second in that year’s Reader Award balloting.

Hmm, maybe shorter is better.

If you’ll excuse me, I think I need to go write a story titled “.”

Not to put too fine a point on it. . . .

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6 Responses to “The Importance of Titles” (by Josh Pachter)

  1. I need for you to title my stories–I’m terrible at it! Great blog from one of crime fiction’s great minds. Thanks, Josh!

  2. Reblogged this on David Dean's Author Site and commented:
    For those of us born without titles–good advice from the great Josh Pachter!

  3. An interesting piece of EQMM history. Speaking of long titles, I wonder if EQMM would have published Edmund Crispin’s We Know You’re Busy Writing, But We Thought You Wouldn’t Mind If We Just Dropped In For A Minute. Very funny story, though, about a writer who wants to meet a deadline, but people constantly interrupt him.

  4. Janet says:

    Long titles are usually visually unattractive in a publication such as EQMM that has narrow margins and tight leading, and that can put readers off. Also, you need a title font that is not condensed for them to read well. EQMM doesn’t have the right design for titles of several lines, so we discourage them. In any case, really memorable long titles are, I’ve found, rare. That said, if a title is right for a story, whatever its length, that’s the title it should have, and we will accommodate it.

  5. Adam Meyer says:

    Hey Josh, great piece! I’ve always enjoyed your titles (and the stories that go with them) but I’ll probably pay a little extra attention going forward. I also pay a lot of attention to titles, and usually can’t write something unless I feel I’ve come up with the “right” title (even though it’s often subject to change once I’ve written the thing and know better what it’s about).

  6. Mike says:

    Gotta remember the laws of Primacy and Recency. Makes perfect sense. Thanks for posting.

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