Hangover Square

Patrick Hamilton: Why Book Titles Matter

Yes, Patrick Hamilton, that guy you’ve never heard of, him again, the play-write and novelist. Not to be confused with Hamilton the play… Anyway…

He achieved success at a very young age and was only 25 when his hit play, Rope made him famous and rich (as plays did back then). The Midnight Bell (novel) followed and then Gaslight (from where the term gaslighting originates) and by then he was much better known than any of his still famous contemporaries… such as Graham Greene.

That’s right, at 27 he was more famous that Graham Greene – Our Man in Havana, The Quiet American etc –And yet, you’ve still never heard of him… so why on Earth is that? Some people like to think it’s because of his weird lifestyle and existence. (He came from wealth, fell in love with prostitutes, regularly and got hit by a car that took his nose with it). Even after that he carried on writing hits, war-time dramas, comparable to For Whom The Bells Toll (1940) but with more tension, more drama, more guts.
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Perhaps the reason we don’t treasure Hamilton in the present day is because he didn’t treasure himself. Take for example, Gaslight. He actually “borrowed” the idea of a flickering gaslight from a failed book of his brother Bruce’s, To Be Hanged (1938),

It was a massive success as we’ve already said. In New York, it had the longest run of a foreign play in Broadway history and by 1944 it had already been adapted for film, not just once but twice. However, Hamilton wrote it as a pastiche, and didn’t love it. gaslightAnd the name, Gaslight kind of suggests that.

“What should I call it? Blah! Gaslight. Done!”

It reminds me of a friend asking me (a longtime ago) What’s gaslighting? She knew the term but couldn’t guess the meaning. That’s lot like how you have no idea what his books are about from the titles.

Martin Amis wrote once that book titles shouldn’t be too clever. That a title such as Hangover Square (referring the famous Hanover Square in west London, which was (is) a drinking haunt) and excessive drinking, was a guaranteed way to make people put your book down before they had read it. And he may have a point, Rope? What happens, no idea? There’s a dead body in a box…okay? The Slaves of Solitude, well that sounds both impersonal and depressing, nothing like the funny, weird, knowing book of the same name.

With that in mind, I have some suggestions for the next time Penguin re-releases some Hamilton stuff… Maybe they should rename the books and Photoshop a smile on that face too.

I for one can’t wait to re-read:

“Maniac with a nine- iron” (Hangover Square), “The Talented Mr Gorsly” (Gorse) or “There’s a f**king body in the box, can’t you smell it?” (Rope).

So when we’re naming you books, looking for clever titles that will make the reader go ‘ahhhh’, maybe we should just not. Spell it out. People are busy.