by Carolyn Murnick
Titles can be such a tricky process. Often a project sells to a publisher with one title, and it goes through many iterations as the manuscript gets ready for publication. So many considerations come into play: mood, key words, and what’s called ‘comp titles,’ or comparative titles, i.e. the titles of books that your book will likely be compared to or shelved next to in a bookstore.
For Mandy’s book, there were so many big themes we wanted to nod to: journalism, feminism, injustice, corruption, South Carolina. It felt impossible to capture them all with just a few words. At the time we were tasked with figuring out a title, Mandy and LunaShark had just changed the podcast name of MMP to True Sunlight: I knew it was important to Mandy to dwell in positivity and optimism and not to be weighted down by a title that sounded like formulaic true crime. For me, it was important that the title stand up to multiple interpretations to represent the multiple threads of the book. For our publisher, they were most concerned with finding a title that felt appropriate to the true crime genre. They noted that top-selling true crime books over the past few years had titles like Killers of the Flower Moon, Catch and Kill, In Cold Blood, I’ll Be Gone in The Dark, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. All excellent books that we’d be thrilled to be considered amongst, but they are also all pretty straightforward, crime-y titles that contained keywords like blood, kill, evil, dark. It was a lot! There was a lot of back and forth and trial and error to arrive at a title that suited everyone’s needs.
As an exercise, I did a word search in our manuscript to see what phrases turned up associated with words like blood, kill, and evil. I knew it would be ideal to find a phrase that occurred in the text already that could stand alone as a title. The best contender that came up was taken from a line in the chapter entitled “You’re The Only One,” when Mandy, Liz, and David spot a drunken Cory Fleming and his buddies at a restaurant during the trial lawyer’s convention weekend.
“We smiled in the photos, but inside my stomach started to curdle. Everyone at that table had blood on their hands, and I couldn’t stand to look at their doughy faces. A pessimistic inner monologue began to creep in: The good old boys always seemed to come out on top. Some men would lie and cheat and steal and murder, and there would always be others around them who would stand by and enable them—the proximity to power was like a drug.”
It was certainly vivid, but as a title, I thought it worked on multiple levels: Alex and Paul had blood on their hands literally; the corrupt justice system who enabled them have blood on their hands, and the hollowed-out clickbaity journalism industry that doesn’t pay local reporters a living wage has blood on their hands (a bonus: the media from big outlets who sensationalize crime stories and play to the lowest common denominator also have blood on their hands!)
Blood On Their Hands might not have been the title we imagined when we started writing, but over time it began to feel more and more fitting. It doesn’t celebrate the Murdaughs, and it’s a real excoriation of the villains in the story.
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