16 December 2017

A Punny Thing Happened on the Way to the Title

How important are titles of novels/stories, etc.? According to my publisher and most editors, VERY. As a result, I try hard to come up with story titles that are interesting or appropriate or--hopefully--a little mysterious. I especially like a play on words or a double meaning.

We've talked at this blog about titles and their importance before, and the fact that some are truly unique and memorable: East of Eden, Atlas Shrugged, To Kill a Mockingbird, Watership Down, No Country for Old Men, Gone With the Wind, A Walk Among the Tombstones, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Red Badge of Courage, From Here to Eternity, Jaws, The Guns of Navarone, Cool Hand Luke, The High and the Mighty, Peyton Place, Presumed Innocent, The Grapes of Wrath, The Eagle Has Landed, The Sound and the Fury, Fahrenheit 451, The Color Purple, The Silence of the Lambs, Of Mice and Men, The Maltese Falcon, The Hunt for Red October, Cannery Row, Dances With Wolves, The Caine Mutiny, and so on and so on.

But today I'd like to talk about some of the wittiest (not the best, just the wittiest and cleverest) book titles I can remember. Confession time: I wound up buying many of these books, mainly because of their names. What can I say?--I couldn't resist.

NOTE: I've started out with some of my all-time favorites and ended with the merely amusing. (And yes, I know, I'm easily amused.) I like 'em all.

1. Let's Hear It for the Deaf Man -- Ed McBain

2. The Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker -- Ron White

3. Shoot Low, Boys--They're Riding Shetland Ponies -- Lewis Grizzard

4. Here's Looking at Euclid -- Alex Bellos

5. Florence of Arabia -- Christopher Buckley

6. How to Win Friends and Influenza -- Edward Kurtz

7. Midnight in the Garden of Evel Knievel -- Giles Smith

8. A Hearse of a Different Color -- Tim Cockey

9. The Canceled Czech -- Lawrence Block

10. The Scoreless Thai -- Lawrence Block

11. Bleak Expectations -- Mark Evans

12. Lapsing Into a Comma -- Bob Walsh

13. How to Raise Your IQ by Eating Gifted Children -- Lewis B. Frumkeys

14. I Still Miss My Man but My Aim Is Getting Better -- Sarah Shankman 

15. I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression -- Erma Bombeck

16. Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea -- Chelsea Handler

17. Tequila Mockingbird -- Tim Federle

18. Chose the Wrong Guy, Gave Him the Wrong Finger -- Beth Harbison

19. Don't Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It's Raining -- Judy Sheindlin

20. No Way to Treat a First Lady -- Christopher Buckley

21. From Here to Maternity -- Sinead Moriarty

22. The War Between the Tates -- Alison Lurie

23. Up From Down Under -- Jeff Apter

24. Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies -- June Casagrande

25. If at Birth You Don't Succeed -- Zach Anner 

26. The Elephants of Style -- Bob Walsh

27. Gladly the Cross-Eyed Bear -- Ed McBain

28. A Quiche Before Dying -- Jill Churchill 

29. Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead -- screenplay by Neil Landau and Tara Ison 

30. Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School -- Adam Ruben 

I'm not sure how these writers came up with these delightful titles, but I'm fairly sure that when they did, they were delighted also. A word of caution, though. This kind of thing is like similes and metaphors; when they work they're pure gold, and when they don't they can be exploding cigars. Just think of all those cozy cat mysteries or cooking mysteries that are usually pretty darn good once you get into them . . .  but I suspect some of their pun-based titles keep readers from getting into them.

What are some clever titles that you've seen (of books, stories, movies, TV shows, etc.)? And have you come up with any yourself? If you're like me, you might dream up one you think is brilliant, and then your editor/publisher decides to change it. (Sigh.) I did a SleuthSayers post on that very subject, almost a year ago.

Okay, back to my favorites. I've saved the best for last. At a library sale I once saw a book whose title made me stop and laugh out loud. It was Apocalypse Pretty Soon, by Alex Heard. How could I not buy that book? (Besides, it was only a dollar.)

I wish I'd thought of it first.


  1. Clever post. Just looked through the titles of my novels and stories and I'm not even close to a clever title, which makes me admire these guys even more. Cool. I can add a few from friends. I've mentioned them before. Poppy Z. Brite's ARE YOU LOATHSOME TONIGHT. John Dillman's UNHOLY MATRIMONY. And how about THE ZEBRA STRIPED HEARSE by Ross McDonald?

  2. Great list! And I actually know Alex Heard, who's also a fine writer beyond the fun title. :-)

  3. An amusing column for sure!

  4. Great list, John. I think most of us agree that a good title is vital (the rhyme was accidental).

    I remember several of these, but haven't read many of them.

    A few adds: Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? became the film(s) Blade Runner.

    It's not as punny/witty, but I like the eye-catchiness of Elmore Leonard's Maximum Bob.

    And one of my own, about a car thief. For weeks, my cover designer called it Hyundai Bloody Hyundai while we struggled for something better. My wife finally came up with the winner we loved at first sight: Oh Lord, Won't You Steal Me A Mercedes Benz.

  5. O'Neil, I like Unholy Matrimony. And yes, I too admire the writers who come up with some of these witty titles. Off the subject a bit, wasn't it John D. MacDonald who used colors in most of his titles? Nightmare in Pink, Darker Than Amber, etc.

    Thanks, Art and Janice! Art, I must read some more of Heard's work--pleased to hear that he's a friend of yours.

    I find myself wondering if some of the punny titles in, say, the Berkley Prime Crime group, are suggested by the publisher. It seems almost a requirement that many of the cozy titles are plays on words. Anybody know for sure?

  6. Thanks, Steve! (The vital title?)

    Yep, I've always liked the original Blade Runner title. And Elmore Leonard had a few of those too, didn't he,

    Love your wife's title!! That should've gone into my list!

  7. Great fun! My friend Janet Bolin has just received the cover for her 2018 release of the cozy, Goodbye Cruller World. (Yes, it's about murder in a donut shop.) And yes, John - the Prime Time cozy titles were almost all groaner puns. That's who my friend used to write for. She's now with Kensington.

  8. I've read "Apocalypse Pretty Soon" and it's damn good!
    Patrick McManus wrote a lot of hilarious books, with hilarious titles: "A Fine and Pleasant Misery", "Real Ponies Don't Go Oink", "They Shoot Canoes, Don't They?", and "Never Sniff a Gift Fish" for a few.
    And yes! to Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep"

  9. These two might be song titles ... "You Broke My Heart In 17 Places" & the sequel or prequel, "You Broke My Heart So I Busted Your Jaw".

  10. Decades ago they released a (I think) hideous Spanish gore and chop-'em-up movie here and the best thing was the new title: "I Dismember Mamma." (I'm laughing as I type the title! :) )

  11. Go on the IMDB and scroll through the titles of the old "Get Smart" series---the episode titles were often hilarious: "Only Two 99," "The Mess of Adrian Lissenger," "How Green Was My Valet," and my favorite (which is actually kind of chilling) the golf-related "I Shot 86 Today." The same holds for the titles of the short-lived "Sledge Hammer."

  12. Melodie, I like your friend's title. I can't say the same about some of those other cozy titles, but--as mentioned--I bet the publisher sometimes overrode the original titles and came up with their own.

    Eve, I'm ashamed to say I didn't know of McManus's books--I do like those titles. Thanks for this comment!!

    Liz, song titles are a whole nother issue. How about "The Creek's Washed Out and I Can't Swim, My Baby's on the Other Side." Or "My Wife Ran Off With My Best Friend, and I Miss Him." Or "I Get Tears in My Ears When I Lie on My Back and Think About You." I love those.

    Jeff, you're a fountain of information, as usual. I now recall those episode titles of Get Smart, but I'd forgotten about that. Sledge Hammer too. And I do remember I Dismember Mamma, though thankfully I didn't watch it.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>