Tuesday, January 03, 2012

“Tell him he can have my title, but I want it back in the morning”

That Jack Dempsey-attributed quotation marks today's release of Affairs of Steak, fifth of Julie Hyzy's White House Chef mysteries. I claim a kind of sous-chef's role in bringing this confection to the literary table, having suggested to Hyzy a title that, in a modified version, made it into print.

Naturally I liked my original suggestion (Secretary of Steak), though the final version is pretty good, too. But I like the title of the first in the series even better: State of the Onion.

The titles work like miniature deadpan jokes, with serious openings that get you thinking of grave political matters, then hit you with a comic punch line. What are your favorite funny titles? What makes them funny?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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15 Comments:

Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I don't know about "favorite", but I have AT THE WHIM OF A HAT at the moment. Mildly absurd and amusing, as is Colin Cotterill's style. This one is a new series. Not sure if I like it yet.

As a rule, I like humor in crime novels to be incidental rather than general, as there is nothing funny about crime.

January 03, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Make that KILLED AT THE WHIM OF A HAT.

January 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That title is a bit more than mildly absurd. The one offensively flippant bit in a crime novel that comes to mind was just that: a bit, a throwaway reference to a killing that had occurred before the novel's main action. A book that adopted that tone generally would be offensive, but I have never read such a book.

January 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

There may be nothing funny about crime, but there can be something funny about criminals. And nothing says the humor can't be mixed with horror. One of my favorite bits of dialogue, and one of the funniest I've read in a crime novel, passes between a couple of men struggling to get a dead body out of an apartment building, and it directly concerns the task at hand.

Comic caper novels can work (I enjoy many of Westlake's Dortmunder books). But the crimes in such books tend to be against property rather than against persons, which makes it easier for the reader to laugh.

I always liked how Westlake described the genesis of the Dortmunder novels. He was writing one of the Parker books he wrote as Richard Stark, books that always placed severe and unforeseen obstacles in Parker's way. "What if Parker had to steal the same gem six times?" Westlake thought, and he realized that was too absurd and comical a possibility to form the plot of a serious Parker novel. So he wrote The Hot Rock, the first of the comic Dortmunder books. Some readers don't like caper novels, but authors can wring comic possibilities out of them without being offensive.

January 03, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I agree. I always like the Frost novels. Frost is a comic character who can become very serious when confronted with the grief of the victims' relatives. The series pretty much represents for me the best in combining humor and the horror of murder.

January 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You may or may not be thrilled to learn, if you don't know already, that R.D. Wingfield's estate has apparently approved the writing of two more Frost novels.

I had a friend who was a big fan of the Frost TV series. Perhaps I should give the books a look.

January 03, 2012  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

Usually the mysteries with punny and/or culinary titles are cozies, which I don't enjoy very much.

I do get a kick out of Robert Rankin's books, and he has some of the best silly titles: RAIDERS OF THE LOST CAR PARK, SEX AND DRUGS AND SAUSAGE ROLLS, THE DA-DA-DE-DA-DA CODE, RETROMANCER, etc.

January 04, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Re Wingfield revival: I don't believe there's ever been an example of another author continuing a series and doing a good job.
However, maybe I can shut down the critical eye and peer only at the entertainment factor. As I said, I loved the PBS shows.
On the same note, the continuation of the Morse series on PBS via his former sidekick has been a major letdown on all fronts.

January 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kelly, you're right about those titles. I'm no cozy reader, but one does not have read cozies to appreciate a title like "State of the Onion."

If you like those Rankin titles, you might also enjoy Colin Bateman's. These include "Dr. Yes" and "The Day of the Jack Russell."

January 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I wonder what the critical reaction has been to the post-Ian Fleming James Bond books. I'm no Bond reader, but some fine writers have written Bond novels after Fleming.

Any recommendations if I decide to read some Frost?

January 04, 2012  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

Emma Lathen's John Putnam Thatcher mysteries made good use of puns in their titles: Murder Without Icing, for example, has a hockey team at the center of the story.

January 05, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Murder Without Icing sounds as if it involves a more typical subject for cozy mysteries, a nice touch.

January 05, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

My paternity was acknowledged at Bouchercon in Cleveland last week, Julie Hyzy introduced me to someone as the person who came up with the title, which gave me a thrill. I've also suggested another title to her, and I shall let you all know if it goes anywhere.

October 11, 2012  
Blogger Lauren said...

Found this by following the Lawton repost, and while I've nothing to add on the topic of funny titles, I have read a large number of post-Fleming Bond novels, and they range from 'marginal difference, really rather good' (Colonel Sun - Markham/Amis) to 'fun as pastiche but doesn't stand on it's own and don't look too closely or you'll see the seams' (Devil May Care/Faulks) to 'plot good but I don't want Thatcher or true love in my Bond novels' (late-era John Gardner), 'I didn't know Bond had turned American' (persistent language issues in Raymond Benson), plus 'If I wanted Jeffery Deaver that's what I would have picked up' for the author of the same name. I've got the William Boyd novel on preorder for September, so we'll how that goes. I have a friend who's just started reading the Fleming novels after a lifetime of being a film-Bond fan and is finding them rather hard-going. It's true the films do drastically overdo the bad one-liners and the explosions, but the books can be just a tad humourless at times.

On authors continuing a series more generally, the new Peter Wimsey novels are not getting any better; on the other hand, there are quite a few good Holmes pastiches among the dross, so it really depends, I suppose.

Oh, and despite opinions upthread I love(d) the Morse continuation Lewis, although I'll admit that I'm youngish and female and may have been primarily watching for the new sidekick.

(I wouldn't have dug up the thread, but I did want to post on something not WW2-related!)

July 18, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm no Holmesian, but one of the creators of the current British show said something interesting at Crimefest this year about all the contemporary gadgets in the show's updated version of the saga. These reflect Doyle's spirit and intent, he said. Doyle, that is, was not nostalgic. He gave Holmes the most up-to-date tools available. The new show does the same.

July 18, 2013  

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