Sunday, October 21, 2007

Titles, Blackwater, and more

by Libby Hellmann

I’m going to a conference next weekend in Muncie,Indiana, and the organizers chose James Cain’s THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE as their “one book, one conference” theme. What a fabulous choice! The writing is spare yet elegant, the characters are layered and nuanced, and the twist at the end makes it one of the best examples of noir ever written. I think I’ve read it 3 times now, and I still savor it.

But what I didn’t know until recently is the genesis of the title. In a biography of James Cain written by Roy Hoopes, Hoopes says Cain originally titled Postman “Bar-B-Que.” His publisher, Alfred Knopf, objected and suggested “For Love of Money” instead. (a snort, snide comment or other reaction is appropriate, especially for anyone whose publisher has changed their title). Cain didn't like it either, and it was only in a conversation with playwright and screenwriter Vincent Lawrence, that the Postman title was conceived. Here are Cain’s words, from his preface to DOUBLE INDEMNITY, another noir classic, that I found on Wikipedia:

We were talking one day, about the time he had mailed a play, his first, to a producer. Then, he said, "I almost went nuts. I'd sit and watch for the postman, and then I'd think, 'You got to cut this out,' and then when I left the window I'd be listening for his ring. How I'd know it was the postman was that he'd always ring twice."
He went on with more of the harrowing tale, but I cut in on him suddenly. I said: "Vincent, I think you've given me a title for that book."
"What's that?"
"The Postman Always Rings Twice."
"Say, he rang twice for Chambers, didn't he?"
"That's the idea."
"And on that second ring, Chambers had to answer, didn't he? Couldn't hide out in the backyard any more."
"His number was up, I'd say."
"I like it."
"Then, that's it."

I’m just starting a new book, as yet untitled. So, I’m curious…What do you look for in a title? What should it do or not do? What is the best book title you’ve ever seen? What’s the worst? What about one-word titles? Cool…or pretentious?


One of the best parts about being a writer is doing research. Because of the subject matter of my new novel, Sean Chercover recommended Blackwater by Jeremy Scahill. (Thanks, Sean)

I’m only 100 pages in but I’m scared. I didnt know Erik Prince was an evangelical Christian. (He converted to Catholicism, but still supports the religious right...)But what really disturbs me is his claim, according to Scahill, that his mercenaries have immunity from both international and domestic law. Because Blackwater is a private military, Prince claims they should not be accountable under international or military law. At the same time, because they are part of “The Fight,” they should be exempt from domestic US law. So far, up until September, he was able to play both ends against the middle.

Hmm… a private army, devoted to some higher power, that considers itself above the law… Can you say “Brownshirts?” By the way, for more about Prince's connections and war profiteering activities, check out Frank Rich's column in Sunday's New York Times.


On a lighter note, because I’m usually in the middle of several books at once, I want to give another shout-out to SIN AND THE SECOND CITY, Karen Abbott’s book about the Everleigh sisters and their high-class Chicago brothel. I mentioned it a few months ago, and it’s every bit as charming as I’d hoped it would be. Abbott paints Chicago at the turn of century in fine detail, and her prose is so lyrical you’d think you were reading fiction.

I’m also making my way through Michael Harvey’s THE CHICAGO WAY. It’s an easy read, and, despite one glaring mistake, I’m enjoying Michael Kelly. Then there’s CALUMET CITY, due out next March by Charlie Newton, which features a hard-bitten female Chicago cop. The first page grabbed me.

I’m also looking forward to BLEEDING KANSAS, by Outfit member Sara Paretsky, out in January, and Outfitter Marcus Sakey’s AT THE CITY’S EDGE, also in January.

Finally, I’m told there are some minor distribution glitches with CHICAGO BLUES. You should see it in all Chicago stores within a week or so, but if you need to get your hands on a copy now, go to any of the Chicagoland Borders. They did a very generous buy, and many of their copies are signed.


Shannon said...

I'm reading Blackwater, too and it scares me worse than any thriller, noir, or detective novel I've read. I also love James M. Cain. He's classic.

Woodstock said...

THE OLD BUZZARD HAD IT COMING - Donis Casey's choice of title for her debut novel (Poisoned Pen Press) was so unique, with such a "come hither" hook to it that I sat down with the book the moment I opened the shipment of ARC's I received to review. I wonder if I will ever again come across a title which affects me the same way.

spyscribbler said...

Have you read RJ Hillhouse's book, Outsourced? (Fiction) She has a blog up, too, called "The Spy Who Billed Me," LOL.

Tony D'Amato said...

The best title I've ever seen was by Preston Sturges, the great Hollywood director and auteur. He said he was going to write his autobiography, but never did. When asked about how it was coming along, he said that he had only gotten as far as the title. His title: "The Events Leading Up to My Death."

Mark Combes said...


One of my favorite titles (and books) is by the great naturalist/novelist, Peter Matthiessen - "At Play in the Fields of the Lord." Movie, not so much, but the book is wonderful. Matthiessen's natualist eye turned on the Amazon basin - beautifully rendered. And the title makes you go "huh?"

Libby Hellmann said...

Woodstock.. did you know Donis won an award for BUZZARD? I think the Arizona or Colorado Book Award. I've been meaning to read RayAnn's books, Spyscribbler... I hear they're great. Love the blog name. And Sturges' autobiography, Tony. And yes, MArk, Matthiesen's title is poetic.
Thanks, all.

Michael Dymmoch said...

Dick Francis frequently uses one word titles. They're fine if they describe the theme or something relevant. Shattered describes the emotional state of the protagonist as well as referring obliquely to a disaster in his profession--glass blowing. Reflex is a photography term as well as an automatic behavior. The protagonist is an amateur photographer.

Dennis N. Griffin said...


In 2005 I began writing "The Battle for Las Vegas," the story of the Las Vegas reign of Outfit enforcer Tony Spilotro.

While researching for that book, I was introduced to Frank Cullotta, Spilotro's boyhood pal and trusted lieutenant-turned-government witness. Frank and I subsequently co-authored his biography, which was released in July 2007.

While the manuscript was underway, the publisher and I discussed a number of title possibilities. We all agreed that "CULLOTTA" would be it, until someone pointed out that although Frank had been instrumental in landing a lot of his former associates behind bars, had been a technical consultant to the movie "Casino" and appaered in several scenes as a hit man, very few people knew of him. Tony Spilotro had the name recognition, not Frank.

After additional debate, we ended up with this monster: "CULLOTTA - The Life of a Chicago Criminal, Las Vegas Mobster, and Government Witness." Nick Pileggi wrote the book's Foreword, so having his name on the cover should also help overcome Frank's lack of notoriety.

I have two blogs where I post excerpts from my books and other info relating to Las Vegas and the Mob.

If you think those sites might be of interest to your readers I'll be happy to provide the URLs.


Denny Griffin