Whenever it comes up in conversation that I’ve written a book, and people ask what it’s called, and I tell them THE BIG O, the reaction is very much split along gender lines. Women tend to raise an eyebrow and / or smirk, and say, ‘Oh, really?’ Men tend to say, ‘Oh.’
People have asked as to why I picked THE BIG O as a title, and here’s the skinny. Its working title was ‘Karen King, Pirate Queen’, but my agent didn’t much like the idea of actually calling it that. ‘Any other suggestions?’ he said. ‘Well, I’m thinking of calling it THE BIG O,’ I said. All credit to him, he smirked and raised an eyebrow.
Because the story was a comedy crime caper, I wanted a title that paid its dues to classic crime, but also had a little fun with it too. THE BIG SLEEP is, for me, the quintessential crime novel title, so I wanted a variation on that. That title, as everyone knows, was invented by Chandler as crime fiction argot for ‘death’ – as in, ‘he sleeps the big sleep’. And because my story’s central character was a woman, the feisty Karen, I liked the idea of working in a good dollop of sex too – ‘the big o’, as the French will tell you, is also ‘le petit mort’. So I came up with The Big Omega, aka THE BIG O.
There was a more serious element to it too. I don’t know if many of you have ever had a loaded gun pointed at your face, but if you haven’t, I don’t recommend you go rushing out to try it. You have no idea of how that little ‘O’ can grow so huge in a heartbeat, until it’s virtually your entire world. The guy at the other end of the gun was a British soldier at a checkpoint near Derry, and he could have pointed that gun a million places and still got his message across. But he didn’t. He pointed the gun at my face. Not good. That ten seconds or so will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I’d planned to have the ‘O’ in the title of the original THE BIG O designed as if it was the muzzle of a gun staring you straight in the face. That didn’t work out, but I was very happy with the retro cover art concocted by Carly Schnur when I saw it. Bizarrely, and without any prompting from me, the cover art boffins working on THE BIG O at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt came up with practically the perfect example of what I’d had in mind originally. And not only that, the cover itself is an homage to an old Elmore Leonard cover (right), with which I am very well pleased.
Anyhoos, ‘the big o’ is slang for a variety of wildly different things, among them the female orgasm and Roy Orbison, both of which I reference in the book just for the hell of it. Over the last 18 months or so, people have offered me wildly diverse slang takes on ‘the big o’ – the Olympic Stadium in Montreal, the ‘Brotherhood of International Government and Order’ in Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm stories, opium among the biker fraternity, and an arithmetic function in Number Theory.
The latest, which arrived yesterday, is that ‘the big o’ is slang used by Navajo Native Americans to refer to ‘the toilet’, although I’m still waiting for official confirmation of that one. Talk about offering a hostage to fortune …
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.