Via a link sent to me eons ago on the Internet timescale (about a month) by Dave Lull, I read a pertinent article in The Telegraph by John Sutherland about us “poor saps” who get hooked on a series because of a clever title motif. According to Mr Sutherland, the “signature title” is unique to the crime-fiction genre: other types of book have to make do with tomes such as the blurb to acquire interested readers. Crime-fiction readers, apparently, recognize a book not by its cover but by its title:
“John Harvey’s Resnick novels are instantly recognizable not because of any alliteration, but because in the dozen or so he’s written, there’s always a punchy epithet-noun title: Easy Meat, Still Water, Last Rites. Strong stuff. Harvey’s admirers (of whom I’m one) can spot a Resnick yards away.Why do authors of crime novels cultivate the signature title? Because they know how readers of crime novels operate. They’re addicts, poor saps. Like problem drinkers, they stick, loyally and insatiably, to their favourite tipple.’Make mine Mosley,’ they say, or ‘Siegel’, or ‘Harvey’. They want the same fix, time after time. ‘I’m here,’ the signature title shouts. ‘Another one by your old friend [fill in the blank]. Come buy, come buy.’ And we do.”
Well, of course he has a point. But only to a degree. For some writers, the title is the brand. (Sue Grafton’s alphabet and J D Robb (Nora Roberts) …in death being two obvious examples.) But journalistic licence has come into play also, that is for sure. Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series is Black Tide, Bad Debts, etc — but Broken Shore is a standalone with an identical style to the title. (Unlike Harlan Coben, who keeps his titles cleanly separate for his Myron Bolitar series and his standalones.) J K Rowling’s “title brand” is “Harry Potter and the…….” – but is not genre-limited to us “poor saps”. And there are plenty of crime-fiction series that don’t go for the title brand: my recent find Helene Tursten goes for “Detective Inspector Huss”, “The Torso” and “The Glass Devil”, but there are many similar examples of series with unconnected titles – Michael Connelly started out with “Black Echo”, then “Black Ice”, but rapidly deviated into “brief but random”. I could go on and on, but I will stop, because my point is, the generalization does not work. Try this one: “some authors, whatever the genre, write a series and brand it via the title. Others do not. And yet other authors don’t write series.” This is not such a catchy premise, journalistically speaking. But it is more accurate.