This is a topic I have been pondering of late, mainly due to all the book browsing I have been doing online – just looking mind… well mostly just looking… fine I bought some books! I noticed on the one hand you can get some incredibly prosaic titles such as Kenneth Hopkins’ The Girl Who Died (1955), Rae Foley’s The Girl From Nowhere (1949), George Simenon’s The Girl with the Squint (1951), (see the trend for titles including the phrase ‘The Girl,’ started long before the girl ever got on a train) and John Cameron’s Body Found Stabbed (1932). With titles such as the last one there is no messing around or vague literary allusions. The pithiest one I came across was Selwyn Jepson’s novel of 1932 called Man Dead. A murder mystery in a nutshell.
On the other hand though there have also been plenty of writers who have gone for more outside the box titles, no doubt hoping to lure readers in by sheer befuddlement and curiosity. Of late I have found myself quite enjoying titles which begin with the phrase ‘the man who,’ as although lots of the time the rest of the title is quite ordinary, such as: Vera Caspary’s The Man Who Loved His Wife (1966) and George Simenon’s The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (1938), occasionally an author does throw you a curve ball you weren’t expecting. Two recent examples of this for me were Gladys Mitchell’s The Man Who Grew Tomatoes (1959) and Ethel Lina White’s The Man Who Loved Lions (1943). Another good starter phrase for mystery titles is ‘The Phantom,’ again because 9 times out of 10 the phrase will be followed by something expected (e.g. of the opera, clue, guest, house), only for the 10th time to be something wonderfully weird such as William Byron Mowery’s The Phantom Canoe (1935). If this was a game of Family Fortunes, the word canoe definitely wouldn’t have been one of the top answers.
Now that we have eased our way into the weirder titles of crime fiction, our next stop is animals. When an animal is mentioned in the title the chances of it being a slightly less than normal title are quite high. Quite a famous example for us Golden Age fans is John Rhodes’ Vegetable Duck (1944). Cats of course also frequently turn up in weird and wonderful mystery titles, with writers such as D. B. Olsen writing a series of 13 mysteries of which all the titles include the word cat. The most unusual ones in my opinion are Cat’s Don’t Smile (1945) and The Cat Wears a Noose (1944). However what surprised me when researching this post was also how popular horses were, especially unnaturally coloured ones, ranging from Kathleen Moore Knight’s The Blue Horse of Taxco (1947) to Tim Hemlin’s If Wishes Were Horses (1996) and Ride the Pink Horse (1946) by Dorothy B Hughes. Two other unusual, though smaller subgroups also emerged in my research. The first one is animals in cellars and I think the RSPCA would definitely have something to say about the animals some writers keep in their cellars, such as Pamela Branch’s Lion in the Cellar (1951) and Margaret Scherf’s The Owl in the Cellar (1945). Dragons was the second subgroup, such as Clyde B Clason’s Dragon’s Cave (1939) and Death on the Dragon’s Tongue (1982) by Margot Arnold, though in a way they were a bit disappointing, primarily because there is part of me which wanted the books themselves to actually have dragons in them. Or maybe I am just being a bit picky? A final surprise for me came when I found an unusual animal related title by R. T. Campbell, an author I have read before, who in 1946 wrote a mystery novel named Adventure with a Goat (1946). At last I have found a mystery novel it seems for my own two goats, though I worry it might give them ideas. Worried that insects may have been left out? Then fear not as Alice Campbell also in 1946 wrote The Cockroach Sings.
There is also a subgroup of weird crime fiction titles for me which all have one of two things in common. They are either so weird they raise questions or they include words which I don’t really know what they mean. For instance examples of those from the first category would include She Had to Have Gas (1939) by Rupert Penny, Dirty Butter for Servants (1972) by Joan Fleming, Twenty Five Sanitary Inspectors (1935) by Roger East and Hugh Pentecost’s The Cannibal Who Overate (1962). Out of the selection I have offered Fleming’s title probably raises the most questions, which can be pretty much summed up by the word WHY??? Moving on to the second category two titles which came up in my internet searching were Elliot Paul’s Hugger-Mugger in the Louvre (1940) and Eunice Mays Boyd’s Murder Wears Mukluks (1948), though I think it is the first title which wins the prize for being the weirdest, as not only did I have no idea what hugger-mugger meant (sounded like a mugger who goes around hugging people), but whatever this weird thing was, it was taking place in the highly unusual place of the Louvre.
Food is another source of odd and weird mystery fiction titles, beginning with Anne Nash’s Cabbages of Crime (1945). Other unusual ones include Arthur Upfield’s Cake in the Hat Box (1954), Gladys Mitchell’s Churchyard Salad (1969), (writing as Malcom Torrie), Raspberry Jam (1920) by Carolyn Wells and Sydney Fowler’s The Rissole Mystery (1941). It also surprised me to discover that there is not only one mystery novel named A Trout in the Milk, but there are in fact three!
Finally there are of course those weird titles which are sufficiently weird that they don’t really fit into any group at all such as:
- A Nice Cup of Tea (1950) by Anthony Gilbert;
- Beer for Psyche (1946) by Dorothy Gardiner;
- Hung by an Eyelash (1939) by Lindsay Anson;
- Beyond Insulin (1935) by J. J. Connington and
- Moss Rose (1934) by Marjorie Bowen (writing as Joseph Shearing)
So there we have it, a whistle stop tour of some of the unusual and wacky names authors have given to their mystery novels. Whilst I don’t think a title is the strongest motivator for me reading a book, I do find it hard to resist a mystery when it has a completely mad title. And it is a little bit sad that nowadays mystery titles are by and large much more conventional and at times formulaic. Though I can’t see any author naming their next thriller or police procedural novel cotton wool or flapjack, it would be nice if the titles crept just a little outside the box. I hope you have all enjoyed this post and I’d love to hear of other daft and batty titles you have come across, so do share below.