Titles are very much on my mind at present as I mull over the options for my recently completed novel. Of course whatever my agent and I settle on, it won’t necessarily be the title the book ends up with, but still . . . you want something that’ll get you off to a good start and attract the eye of an editor. And this is by no means easy. A good title should pique the reader’s curiosity, it should tell the reader something about the book, but it shouldn’t tell them too much. Some of best titles, I think, are allusive rather than descriptive, they come at the novel from a slant. SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS, MISS SMILLA’S FEELING FOR SNOW are recent titles that I find memorable and evocative. The title should fit the novel so well that you can’t imagine it with any other name. LORD OF THE FLIES. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. GONE WITH THE WIND. CATCH TWENTY-TWO. Great titles, all of them, It comes as something of a surprise to discover that Margeret’s Mitchell’s original title for GONE WITH THE WIND was TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY: nothing like as good. And CATCH TWENTY-TWO wasn’t Joseph Heller’s first idea either.
Im my experience a title is either obvious from the start or it gives you endless trouble. One way round this is to begin with the title. That’s more or less what I did with my short story, ‘Don’t You Hate Having Two Heads?’ I happened to see this, the title of a surrealist painting, in an article in THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT, and it stuck in my memory. And when sometime later on holiday in Venice I visited the Guggenheim museum and saw Max Ernst’s sinister painting, THE ROBING OF THE BRIDE, in which the bride does indeed have two heads, well, the story almost wrote itself. My friend the crime writer Kate Ellis who has some great titles, often uses them as a jumping off point: that’s what she did with her latest book, THE FLESH TAILOR, an archaic name for a surgeon. Similarly with my novel FOOTFALL I had the title in mind some time before the novel began to form round it.
In the end there is something mysterious about a good title. It’s not necessarily something you can decide on just by thinking about it. Like an idea for a novel, it can arrive out of the blue and you know it when you see it.
On his splendid blog Martin Edwards writes occasionally about forgotten crime writers. I am not sure that Harry Kemelman has been forgotten exactly, but I don’t suppose he is read much these days. I was reminded of his immensely readable novels a few months ago by a friend who was undergoing a gruelling course of chemotherapy. She had read Kemelman’s books years ago and wanted to reread them as comfort reading. She didn’t really think that I’d have any, but I managed to turn up three. I hadn’t read them for years either. And then a fortnight ago browsing at the excellent bookstall run by Partners in Crime at St Hilda’s I saw a second-hand copy of one that I didn’t have and bought it on impulse. It was SATURDAY THE RABBI WENT HUNGRY, the second in the Rabbi Small mysteries, and I read it with much enjoyment. I’m going to seek out the ones I haven’t got.
Kemelman was not a hugely prolific writer, but he was a very successful one. There are eleven Rabbi Small novels, the first published in 1964 and the last in 1996, the year that Kemelman died, aged 88. He is also the author of some interesting short stories collected in the NINE MILE WALK.
The strength of his novels lies in their insight into character and motivation and in his evocation of small town American life, in particular his depiction of an Conservative Jewish community with Rabbi Small at its heart. The Rabbi is an engaging character, humane, perceptive – and stubborn. The mysteries are interesting, too, and are solved by some special bit of insight on the part of Small – sometimes springing from his rabbicinal learning.
Writers like Kemelman are a special inspiration to other late starters like myself. But would an author these days be allowed such long gaps between novels? Many writers are expected to churn one out every year or eighteen months. For some writers this is their natural rhythm – in fact Simenon used to write a Maigret novel in weeks – but for others, the quality suffers. I think this is a pity. Aren’t good things worth waiting for any more?
A few weeks ago I mourned the passing of Galloway and Porter’s. In Oxford last week-end at the Mystery and Crime conference at St Hilda’s I thought of another much-loved second-hand bookshop that vanished some years ago. I can’t remember its name, but it was on the road leading up from the station and on the other side of the road was a restaurant – Malaysian, I think – with the memorable name of Munchy-Munchy. The shop itself was on several floors, there was a big battered sofa, and lots and lots of books. An amusing feature of the shop was a trompe d’oeil bookcase which containing books that were themselves fictional such as Mr Casubon’s KEY TO ALL THE MYTHOLOGIES and X. Trapnel’s CAMEL RIDE TO THE TOMB (one of a number of wonderful titles invented by Anthony Powell in A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME).
Oxford was a good day out from Birmingham where I was living in the early 1980s and a number of books still on my shelves were bought at that shop. I acquired a volume of short detective stories edited by Dorothy L Sawyers in which the standout story was the chilling ‘The Hands of Mr Ottermole’ by Thomas Burke and on another occasion some of Hilary Waugh’s crime novels for only a pound or two each. Much enjoyed by my mother, these were first written in the 50s and 60s and can claim to be the first police procedurals. They are still very readable.
I went back to Oxford for the first time in ages about eight years ago and the shop had gone. In its place was a shop selling hifi equipment – or was it computers? A poignant moment.
You know how it is sometimes when there is something you particularly want to see on holiday, but somehow you drift on from day to day and for one reason or another it just doesn’t happen. Sometimes you make a big effort and get there and sometimes you don’t.
When we were on holiday a couple of weeks ago, the place I wanted to get to was Hale’s Book Shop near the Pantiles in Tunbridge Wells. I had been there before, certainly once, maybe twice, but many years ago. The time I was sure about was a poignant occasion almost exactly 20 years ago. I was with my mother and we were en route to the funeral of close family friend who had died in his forties. His own mother had died when he was young and my mother had been a maternal presence in his life. I was fond of John, too. I can’t remember now why we were hanging around in Tunbridge Wells: waiting for a lift on the way? waiting to catch the train home? I’m not sure. I can just remember being in this attractive second bookshop choosing a book and I really wanted to visit it again.
The first time I tried I got there 5 minutes before it closed. I dashed in and snapped up a World’s Classic of Chekhov short stories, including ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’ and that only whetted my appetite. Finally on the last day on the last possible occasion my husband and I made a last-ditch effort, spent half an hour there, and, holy-moly (as my daughter would say)! What a bookshop. Wonderful stock -and the prices! I bought a copy of Jason Becker’s THE CHINESE, Bamber Gascoigne’s THE DYNASTIES OF CHINA, and DELIGHTING THE HEART: A NOTEBOOK OF WOMEN WRITERS, edited by Susan Sellars. Three paperbacks in excellent condition and what did they cost me: £3. Yes, that’s £3 for the lot! How can they do it? It’s cheaper than a charity shop.
And added to that was the pleasure in roaming around a fine old book shop run by people who love books and know their stock. Sheer bliss. And isn’t it great when something is even better than you remember it?