The Killing Pool has just been published and the title seems to fit very nicely. It suits the book and it suits the subject matter. Yet, for all that the jacket, the image and the title all seem so familiar to me now, The Killing Pool started out in life with a different name altogether. It was called Gangsterland. It had other manifestations, too, before settling into its given name…
Names are dead important to me, right across the board – and nothing is more deserving of an author’s time than sending their characters out properly shod and aptly named. If you’re trying to evoke a certain type of character in a specialised milieu, their christening is a critical part of the process. Some of crime’s most enduring characters reveal a little flake of their persona by means of their handle. Whether it’s Fagin or Harry The Horse or Nick Stefanos, we feel we know them – just a little bit – even before we’ve started reading.
It’s the same with titles. You want your book’s title to offer a flavour of what’s in store for the reader. I’d been nursing this story and a set of characters for a while. Its backdrop was the Liverpool waterfront and the multi-cultural L8 barrio; its tone and timbre quite noir. The book would follow, more or less, one iconic detective in his near-obsessive attempts to break up a cadre of dedicated drug smugglers. The cop was to be an outsider – someone who had come to Liverpool from down South to bust the bad guys. For me, what ensued was a rare instance of a book’s name and its protagonist coming to me almost simultaneously. It was Gangsterland and DCI McCartney; the one seemed to beget the other. Gangsterland had that cultish yet classic sensibility you can get from ‘statement’ titles like that: Copland; Badlands; Southland – each of them sets out its stall and seems to promise something enduring. As for McCartney…well you’ll have to read the book to understand what’s so cute about that!
I sent my publisher the manuscript and could sense his excitement when he phoned to say how much he’d loved the book. He got it, the whole sub-textual thing, twist and all. He got it! So it came as a surprise, then, when the proofs began to be circulated in-house and there was resistance to the title. The feeling from various people who’d read Gangsterland was that the title invited misinterpretation. Readers might be led to expect something much more macho and adrenaline-charged from a title like that, and crime readers, certainly, might not recognise the book as one for them.
I dug my heels in, at first. But then my publisher, Dan Franklin, came up with a name that said everything about this book, its world and its people, good and bad. He suggested Lawless. I completely flipped – I thought it was perfect. The art and design team set to work producing images for the book’s cover, playing with Wild West folklore and pushing the idea of McCartney as a modern-day sheriff, a Lone Ranger riding out into the darkness to make the streets safe. You can imagine my delight, then, when I strode out to the high street one morning last spring and saw posters all over the buses and bus-stops for a new movie called… Lawless.
Back to the drawing board. We needed a title that would tell the story, succinctly; evoke a bold sense of the book’s Liverpool setting, and let folk know that, yes, this is a rampant, gutsy, page-turning crime thriller. I started thinking in terms of films with similar themes and atmospherics – On The Waterfront; Dodge City; Once Upon A Time In Liverpool. None of them was quite right. I flicked through various records and song titles. The Redeemer – been done. The Painted Smile – no. Just…no.
Fate, as it will, took matters into its own hands. I was trundling along listening to Radcliffe & Maconie and what should they play but The Killing Moon by Echo & The Bunnymen. Theme from Donnie Darko. Gothic, romantic, foreboding – and absolutely right for my book. Try and picture Robert De Niro’s Noodles in the opium den in Once Upon A Time In America for an idea of the sheer besotted radiance of my smile. I phoned Dan; emailed the, by now, extensive family of name-pickers to tell them the search was off. A plume of white smoke wafted out above Sampson Towers – The Killing Pool had been selected.
I know it’s only a name, but it matters. It speaks volumes. It was worth the journey, just to get there.
The Killing Pool by Kevin Sampson is published by Jonathan Cape