A Tale of Two Titles (Actually, More Titles Than That!)

January 21st, 2020 by Max Allan Collins

I mentioned a while back that the title of what had been announced as The Untouchable and the Butcher: Eliot Ness, the Torso Killer, and American Justice was called into question by our editor. This is, of course, the follow-up to Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness and the Battle for Chicago by A. Brad Schwartz and me.

From the beginning, Brad and I had viewed this second book as a sequel, and thought the echo of the first book in the title of the second was desirable. It was certainly intentional. But our editor, not terribly long ago, made his desire known: he wanted the book to stand apart, to stand on its own, and he wanted a title that he considered more marketable.

We felt “Untouchable” said Eliot Ness, but our editor’s opinion was that – minus Al Capone – that connection was not as obvious in 2020. We argued. We lost. And since we agreed with our editor that we wanted to sell books, we began searching for a new title.

So did our editor. He had found a vivid phrase in newspaper coverage of the Mad Butcher case: “The Headless Dead.” Initially it was presented as “The Mystery of the Headless Dead,” but neither Brad nor I liked it – I frankly said it sounded like the Hardy Boys. Do I know how to get on an editor’s good side or what?

But I thought “Headless Dead” was worth considering in some form or other; Brad never came around to it. He and I generated probably a score of titles, among the better ones (some mentioned here previously) Shadow of the Butcher and A Knight in the Dark City. This went on for some time.

Then our editor came up with The Haunting of Eliot Ness. I felt that sounded like a book about the paranormal, but Brad saw the merit of referring to how the Mad Butcher case had haunted Ness to his dying day, among other resonances (the real Ness in history is haunted by the TV/movie Ness, for instance).

Beyond this, we had a subtitle to come up with, and I would guess we came up with two score of those. The problem came down to the title needing to focus on the Mad Butcher case, but the book itself also covered the rest of Ness’s post-Capone life, with an emphasis on his innovations in criminology and law enforcement. He was a real innovator in that regard. So the subtitle needed to suggest that.

We spent three hours on the phone with our editor, and I have to hand it to him for his patience with us and his persistence in arriving at a title that he felt readers would be pulled in by (and that the sales force and marketing folks would also like). In that phone call, we zeroed in the subtitle, and while we didn’t settle on anything, we got very close – we knew we just had to assemble the words we’d summoned in a slightly different way. Exhausted, we went to our separate corners to try to come up with some good versions of our basic idea. Also, we had agreed on the overall title – The Haunting of Eliot Ness.

Overnight, I couldn’t stop mulling that title. All I could think of was spending the rest of my life having to deal with readers complaining that Eliot Ness’s ghost was not in the damn book. Or Capone’s or the Butcher’s or somebody’s ghost. The paranormal feel just couldn’t be denied, I felt – the cadence was strictly The Haunting of Hill House.

The next day I opened the can of worms. I began pitching other titles, including The Mystery of Eliot Ness, as our editor liked the mystery aspect of the book. Brad, rightly, was underwhelmed by that. Our editor was worn down by us. Few editors would have spent three hours on the phone with two stubborn writers in search of one decent title and a good subtitle.

Like Solomon, the editor asked Brad and me to come up with two titles that we both could live with. Brad and I started e-mailing back and forth. I did not go with any version of Headless Dead, because I knew Brad would under no circumstances sign off on that. Brad’s pick was The Haunting of Eliot Ness, which of course I had misgivings about.

Then I came up with Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher. I was operating on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre theory – has any title ever told you more honestly, more completely what you’re going to get than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?

To my astonishment, the editor chose Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher. He was happy with it. I was happy. Brad was happy. We did some tweaking back and forth of the final version of a subtitle that I had attached to my preferred title, and that discussion did not take three hours. More like half an hour of e-mailing. And so.

Ladies and gentlemen, introducing…

Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher: Hunting America’s Deadliest Unknown Serial Killer at the Dawn of Modern Criminology

Available this coming August by M.A.C. and A. Brad Schwartz. You can order it at Amazon now, under its now former title The Untouchable and the Butcher: Eliot Ness, Al Capone, and America’s Jack the Ripper.

One of the reasons that subtitle is gone, by the way, is that very early in the writing we decided not to use the Al Capone material because it would have taken us to an unpublishable length.

And for those of you who have been holding off on getting Scarface and the Untouchable, the hardcover is available here for $6.98!

But you should also know that the current trade paperback has a bunch of corrections and bonus material that may make you want to spring for the version still on the bookstore shelves.

* * *

This review of both Mommy and Mommy 2: Mommy’s Day at Horror Fuel is extremely gratifying. The reviewer sees past our low-budget limitations to the performances and story. He likes both movies, but rates the second one higher – a rare honor for a sequel. Please give this a look.

And in just a few days at Amazon the Mommy/Mommy 2 25th Anniversary Blu-ray goes from pre-order to in stock! Still $19.99 (almost ten bucks off!).


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7 Responses to “A Tale of Two Titles (Actually, More Titles Than That!)”

  1. Terry says:

    Ugh — the agonizing process of coming up with a new title — I do not envy you the experience. Well, you got a good one in the end, so I guess it was worth the battle.

    I’m finally reading Scarface and the Untouchable and enjoying the hell out of it. Crazy thing is that my brain keeps wanting to read it in the voice of Walter Winchell! I’m having to actively tell that lunatic position of my gray matter to settle the hell down and read it like a normal person.

  2. Michael says:

    Looking forward to reading it,as well as the new Mike Hammer and Nat Heller books. In the meantime I’m reading the Elliot Ness series

  3. Tommy Raiko says:

    Thanks for the behind-the-scenes on what goes into the title decision for a book. It amazes me to hear that, if there really is so much at stake, that your editor ultimately made a decision without market research. Other industries would subject a new brand name to a battery of consumer testing, but I guess the book business works differently. (Though a little Googling does return some market research companies that offer such a service for books. Go figure…)

    Anyway, as another commenter commented, you wound up with a great title in the end, so congrats!

  4. Sean Kelly says:

    I like the new title. It works well in conjunction with Scarface and the Untouchable.

    As a previous comment states, there are companies who do the marketing for publishers. I participated in some market research for books and magazines in Japan. It was fun to see the different versions (and get paid for it).

    I have all three versions of Scarface and the Untouchable (Hardback, TPB and audiobook). I just regret my dad is no longer here, he would have loved this book. (I remember trying to get him to let me read CAPONE The Life and World of Al Capone at the tender age of 5. He demurred then, but let me read JAWS at 7.)

  5. Craig Childs Jr. says:

    I just finished Black Hats… now it made me want to read the real Al Capone story

    I would have gone with Elliot Ness and the Mad Butcher: The Hunt for America’s Jack the Ripper

  6. I am not a fan of market research — it’s like having advance audiences react to movies and get the real ending screwed up for the writers and the audience. Morrow has a large and sophisticated in-house marketing and sales force whose opinions are key, and our editor has had some incredibly successful non-fiction books out there.

    I would have preferred something shorter and tighter, like “Hunting a Serial Killer at the Dawn of Modern Criminology.” But when a committee designs a horse, as it’s been said, you come up with a camel. I am just relieved to have a strong main title and a subtitle that does reflect the contents of the book. For me the problem is promising nothing but a serial killer story (which would arguably sell better) and ignoring the rest of what and who Eliot Ness was. So having “Dawn of Modern Criminology” is important.

  7. Craig says:

    Good points!

    The overly verbose subtitle will not prevent me from buying and reading the book. This one sounds good.