COMMENT: A Book by Any Other Name

23 Apr

ShakesBigTall.gifToday, the world celebrates the birthday of William Shakespeare—the “Stratford man,” born in 1554, who ostensibly wrote the 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and assorted other works in verse that make up the most lauded body of literature by a single hand in all of history. (I’m one of those who doubts that the guy from Stratford actually wrote all or even most of the plays and poems attributed to him. My vote goes to Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. But, for the purpose of this post, that’s neither here nor there.)

Shakespeare also died on this day, in 1616.

Death figured prominently in the Bard’s writing—as a haunting yet often unspoken presence in his love poetry, as an unavoidable plot device in his work for the stage. So it’s not surprising that those who write detective stories have frequently taken language from Shakespeare to create titles for their own works. Barbara Paul, herself a crime novelist, features on her Web site a compendium of book titles that later and lesser writers have extracted from the Shakespearean corpus. Borrowing from Paul, I’ve listed some of those titles below. (See the full post.)

As that list demonstrates, most of Shakespeare’s plays have provided inspiration for at least one mystery title, with Hamlet and Macbeth serving as especially rich sources of title-worthy phrasing. One book even garnered two titles from the same passage of Bardic verse:

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

The original British edition of Agatha Christie‘s There Is a Tide bore the title Taken at the Flood, but her American publisher—as it did often, and often inexplicably—thought that it knew better which cover line would grab the attention of U.S. readers.

The vogue among mystery writers for Shakespeare-spawned titles seemed to crest in the 1940s, when the genre attained a certain cultural maturity (or, arguably, a certain level of pretension). More recently, though, another trend in titling has emerged that signals a regression from maturity. A Feta Worse Than Death, Sew Deadly, You May Now Kill the Bride—the cutesy pun has overtaken an expanding swathe of the mystery publishing field. The plague mainly afflicts books in the “cozy” subgenre, for perhaps obvious reasons. (Here’s a list of some other titles in this vein.)

Now, I’m a pun-loving guy. But a cutesy pun has no place on the cover of a novel that seeks to derive entertainment from the fact of death; it gives the game away. Titles drawn from Shakespeare’s work strike just the right note, finding a balance—on the edge of a bare bodkin, one might say—between the thematic seriousness and the contrived theatricality that together give detective fiction its core identity.

  • Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers (Antony and Cleopatra)
  • Under the Canopy, Barbara Paul (Cariolanus)
  • Hamlet, Revenge!, by Michael Innes (Hamlet)
  • Glimpses of the Moon, by Edmund Crispin (Hamlet)
  • Leave Her to Heaven, by Ben Ames Williams (Hamlet)
  • And Be a Villain, by Rex Stout (Hamlet)
  • How Like an Angel, by Margaret Millar (Hamlet)
  • Poison in Jest, by John Dickson Carr (Hamlet)
  • The Mouse Trap, by Agatha Christie (Hamlet)
  • Dead for a Ducat, by Helen Reilly (Hamlet)
  • No Wind of Blame, by Georgette Heyer (Hamlet)
  • Alarum and Excursion, by Virginia Perdue (Henry VI, Part 1)
  • Exuent Murderers, by Anthony Boucher (Henry VI, Part 2)
  • Such Men Are Dangeous, Lawrence Block (Julius Caesar)
  • There Is a Tide, by Agatha Christie (Julius Caesar)
  • Sad Cypress, by Agatha Christie (Twelfth Night)
  • No Friendly Drop, by Henry Wade (Romeo and Juliet)
  • Behold, Here’s Poison, by Georgette Heyer (Pericles)
  • Murder Out of Tune, by Frances Lockridge (Othello)
  • Put Out the Light, by Ethel Lina White (Othello)
  • Kill Claudio, by P.M. Hubbard (Much Ado About Nothing)
  • Ill Met by Moonlight, by Leslie Ford (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
  • The Quality of Mercy, by Faye Kellerman (The Merchant of Venice)
  • Most Grievous Murder, by Sara Woods (Richard III)
  • Enter Three Witches, by Paul McGuire (Macbeth)
  • Dagger of the Mind, by Kenneth Fearing (Macbeth)
  • To Fear a Painted Devil, by Ruth Rendell (Macbeth)
  • Look to a Lady, by Margery Allingham (Macbeth)
  • By the Pricking of My Thumbs, by Agatha Christie (Macbeth)
  • Enter a Murderer, by Ngaio March (Macbeth)
  • So Much Blood, by Simon Brett (Macbeth)
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Posted by on April 23, 2010 in Commentary


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