Tell It Straight

51y+dfw1jqL._SX210_Now here’s something you won’t often catch me saying: The French title of Barbara Vine’s A Dark-Adapted Eye is much better than the original.

Vine’s « debut » is known in France as Véra va mourir, which roughly translates as « Vera Is Going to Die » an admittedly less striking and « literary » title but one that fits the book and its mood much better. Like Rendell’s earlier classic A Judgement in Stone, A Dark-Adapted Eye is devoid of any suspense as to its conclusion: Vera is indeed going to die and more specificially to hang in the end. Rendell/Vine makes it crystal clear from the onset. Still, unlike Judgement in Stone that « spoiled » the whole book in its first sentence, A Dark-Adapted Eye retains a mystery element: Why is Vera going to hang? Who did she kill? Rendell/Vine is thus echoeing, probably coincidentally, the earlier works of Patricia McGerr and Bernice Carey.

415RkY5ZVyL._SX345_BO1,204,203,200_This is why the blunt and comparatively unsophisticated French title is so apt. It conveys both the book’s main point and its overall feeling of irrepressible and irreversible doom in the simplest, which usually is the best, way. Not that A Dark-Adapted Eye is a bad title, but it suffers like most of Rendell’s from a strong tendency to obscurity and yes, pretentiousness. Robert Barnard complained about it in his survey of Rendell’s work, A Talent to Disturb, singling The Lake of Darknesse0f8888af0ef81c17aca1a2530d004c9 out as an instance of a title that no one, including himself, could make any sense of. He also mentioned Rendell’s BFF P.D. James as another regular offender. Interestingly as well as revealingly, almost none of the French editions of both writer’s works retained their original titles.

As I said in a previous article, a growing tendency to either obscurity or blandness in titles has been a feature of the crime fiction genre since the end of WWII as it gained increasing respectability and its readership became less « popular » and thus more likely to « get » the literary references. Explicit titles a la Vera Va Mourir are now the exception rather than the rule and it is not necessarily a bad thing. The Puzzling Locked Room Murder at Cranston Manor admittedly leaves no doubt as to the contents of the book but it also leaves none as to the author’s lack of imagination. The mystery reader is no fool (even though writers often take them for one) and doesn’t need to be told exactly what’s in the book, especially as it is already the blurb’s job to do so. There is thus nothing wrong with allegorical or moderately cryptic titles provided their meaning becomes clearer as the plot unfolds. Still there are instances, rare as they are, in which the best way is telling it straight. Sometimes you have to make clear that, yes, Vera is going to die.

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