Guardian Books: Crime Titles from Hamlet

Hamlet 1

So it’s Agatha Christie Week on the blog. It might seem a long way from Christie to Shakespeare, but actually there is a connection – today’s piece appears in the Guardian books section, and is about crime titles that quote from Hamlet, and the blessed Agatha is in there. Twice.

Recently I was lucky enough to see the play at the Barbican in London – that’s the one where Benedict Cumberbatch plays Hamlet. It was a great production, with a charismatic performance by BC, but even while I was enthralled by it I kept noticing how many book titles were part of the text. And, in line with one of my great interests, that a huge number of them were crime titles.

I wrote a piece based on this for the Guardian books pages – this is how it starts:
There’s an old joke about Hamlet: it’s full of quotations. After seeing the new Benedict Cumberbatch performance at the Barbican, I’d offer something else: it’s full of book titles. Is it the most quoted work of literature? Perhaps the Bible might beat it in numbers, but in proportion of lines used, Hamlet must win – from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest to Monica Dickens’ The Winds of Heaven to John Masefield’s Bird of Dawning. 

But what really struck me was the number of crime writers who have taken their titles from the play: I came up with a dozen without even trying, and there are many more once you start reading more closely.
Perhaps Hamlet was the first murder mystery, and that is why it appeals so much to crime writers. It is certainly full of death and killing imagery.

Murder Most Foul (spoken by the ghost in Act 1) has been co-opted for any number of short-story collections, novels and true crime books. Intriguingly, Agatha Christie in a 1934 short story has a crime writer dissing his editor – “Ten to one he’ll alter the title and call it something rotten like Murder Most Foul” – little suspecting that one of the Margaret-Rutherford-as-Miss Marple films would be given the name 30 years later…

Hamlet 2
Hamlet meeds Mad Men: transposed to California by Charlotte Armstrong


Quite a few of the books and authors mentioned in the piece have featured on the blog: we were in the middle of Agatha Christie Week when Hamlet interrupted, and the Charlotte Armstrong piece mentioned (plot and quotation) was a recent entry. There’s Georgette Heyer’s No Wind of Blame, and blog favourite authors like Margaret Millar, John Dickson Carr, Laurie King, Edmund Crispin and Ethel Lina White.

As in the Guardian piece I invite readers to add titles I’ve missed, and am also looking for Hamlet phrases, so far unused, that would make great book titles. I’m going for Toys of Desperation for my unwritten novel….


  1. I truly enjoyed your article, Moira! To me it's really fascinating how much Shakespeare has influenced the rest of literature. Just to look at titles inspired by one play shows how much is out there. There's a lot more if you look at all of Shakespeare's work. Amazing!

    1. Thanks Margot - it would be an astounding list to see all the booktitles from all his plays....

  2. So interesting, I went and read the whole article, and even better you saw Mr. Cumberbatch as Hamlet!

    1. Thank you! And yes, I know how lucky I was to get a ticket to see his Hamlet...

  3. That was an interesting article. And I cannot come up with any more examples. I love the books by Jill McGown and reread Plots and Errors a couple of years ago. Loved it even more the 2nd time.

    1. Tracy, I am just rediscovering Jill McGown, and am really impressed. Plots and Errors is an extraordinary book.


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