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To Brie or Not to Brie... What's the Question?
Recently I had occasion to spend a lot of time in the Mystery section on the second floor at the Mid-Manhattan Library. After looking at many, many titles there, I noticed a plethora of puns. Of course, writers often 'borrow' a few words from another source for a title. For example, John Steinbeck used a few words from the lyrics of Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which she in turn borrowed from the Book of Revelation in the Bible, for his novel The Grapes of Wrath. That is not quite the same thing as creating a title based on another author’s work that includes an intentional pun. One wonders about the reaction of the original authors to the following punned titles: To Brie or Not to Brie by Avery Aames, The Cakes of Wrath by Jacklyn Brady, and A Sheetcake Named Desire by Jacklyn Brady.
I soon discovered that puns in titles were not limited to mysteries involving food. Indeed, they branched out to include various interests and hobbies (usually involving homophones): antiques (Antiques Bizarre by Barbara Allan), gardening (Dead Head by Rosemary Harris), farming (Fruit of All Evil by Paige Shelton), knitting (Fleece Navidad by Maggie Sefton), embroidery (Thread on Arrival by Amanda Lee), crafts (Assault with a Deadly Glue Gun by Lois Winston), and even books (Read and Buried by Erika Chase and A Tale of Two Biddies by Kylie Logan).
There are also several mystery series dedicated to various jobs: shopping mall cop (Malled to Death by Laura Disilverio), veterinarian (Right from the Gecko by Cynthia Baxter), decorative blacksmith (The Hen of the Baskervilles by Donna Andrews), and, yes, librarians (File M for Murder by Miranda James). Elaine Viets writes a Dead-End Job mystery series with recent titles like Board Stiff (set in a beachfront paddleboard shop in Florida) and Final Sail (working as an undercover stewardess on a luxury yacht).
Having met quite a few mystery writers over the years, thanks to the Mystery Writers of America-New York Chapter (they provide a monthly presentation at MML which is really great, join us when you can), I was somewhat perplexed. I had not noticed that a majority of those mystery writers were avid punsters. Possibly a few (I won’t name names), but not that many. Yet how does one account for the aforementioned titles?
I began to wonder if an author writes the book and then chooses the title, or if he/she already has the title in mind and then creates a story around it. How difficult would that be? I call your attention to a few examples: Chili Con Carnage by Kylie Logan (about a murder on the chili cook-off circuit), The Fonduing Fathers by Julie Hyzy (not a typo, it’s part of a series about the White House chef), Tote Bags and Toe Tags by Dorothy Howell (about the unfortunate on-the-job misadventures of a handbag fashionista).
Then I began to fantasize that there really is only one person responsible for these titles, one person whose job is to sit around creating punny titles. (That degree in English had to be suitable for something other than framing, who knew?) But there are so many titles. Maybe there is one punny title person working for each publisher. (Would that job title be Punny Title Editor?) Maybe these mysterious beings are just really bad spellers or inordinately prone to committing malapropisms. Then again perhaps they are simply addicted to playing literary pun games on Twitter; that could certainly account for it.
All this mystery is so exhausting. Right now I could use a cup of Agony of the Leaves (a tea shop mystery by Laura Childs) or maybe even Roast Mortem (a coffee shop mystery by Cleo Coyle). Nothing stronger because it would take more than one glass of Corked by Cabernet (a Napa Valley vineyard mystery by Michele Scott). So long for now, Tulle Death Do Us Part (a vintage clothing store mystery by Annette Blair).