Many people acquire different kinds of nicknames. I don’t mean shortened forms of names, such as “Jo” for “Johanna.” I mean completely different names. Sometimes people get nicknames because of a particular incident. Sometimes it’s because of something about their appearance (e.g. calling someone with red hair “Red.”). I had an acquaintance at university whose surname was Campbell but whom we always called “Soup” after the famous U.S. maker of soups. There are a lot of other examples, too. Some nicknames are flattering or at least neutral. Others….aren’t. It’s interesting though to see what kinds of nicknames we find in crime fiction. There are plenty of them too.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), we meet Hermione Lytton Gore. She’s gone by the nickname Egg since she was a toddler who kept falling over when she walked. Egg and her mother Lady Mary Lytton Gore are invited to a cocktail party one evening at the home of famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. While they’re there, fellow guest Reverend Stephen Babbington suddenly dies of what turns out to be nicotine poisoning. The police begin their investigation but it doesn’t get very far before there’s another killing. This time the victim is well-known specialist Dr. Bartholomew Strange. Hercule Poirot attended the first gathering and when he hears of the second death, he gets actively involved in the investigation. Egg too gets involved in the investigation and in fact, she provides Poirot with a very important clue.
Reginald Hill created a crime fiction icon in the person of Superintendent Andy Dalziel. Dalziel is a larger-than-life kind of character who isn’t much of a one for social graces or diplomacy. He has no problems stepping on people’s proverbial toes as he investigates, and that includes his treatment of his partner Peter Pascoe. Dalziel is fond of his pint and his food, and he’s a big person as it is. So it’s not really shocking that his nickname is “The Fat Man.” Interestingly enough, though, the nickname is almost as much an homage as it is anything else. Few people who work with Dalziel forget him easily and not many people are neutral about him.
Another crime-fictional character whose nickname refers to his size is Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas “Vish” Puri. Puri owns Delhi’s Most Private Investgiations, Ltd. and he and his team spend quite a lot of time doing background investigations for prospective in-laws. But sometimes their investigations get more interesting than that, as in The Case of the Missing Servant. In that novel, Puri and his team investigate the disappearance of Mary Murmu, who went missing from the Kasliwal residence and was presumed killed. When Ajay Kasliwal is accused and then arrested for the crime, he depends on Puri and his team to find the real truth. Puri is quite fond of food, especially food that’s not good for him. His wife Rumpi and his mother both call him Chubby for that reason, and so do his friends. On Puri’s team is Flush, so called because his was the first family in his village to have an indoor bathroom. There’s also Handbrake, Puri’s driver, and Facecream, the only female member of the team. Oh, and there’s the office boy Doorstop, so called because he does as little as possible.
James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux also has a nickname based on his appearance, but it’s not because of his weight. As a younger man, Robicheaux has very dark hair except for one streak of light hair on the side. That piece of hair is the reason that, especially in the first novels such as Black Cherry Blues, Robicheaux’s often called Streak. Later, when he’s got more grey than black hair, the nickname doesn’t seem quite as appropriate but the name has stuck.
Janet Evanovich’s bounty hunter sleuth Stephanie Plum probably wishes that she had a cool nickname like Streak. Unfortunately, she doesn’t. Courtesy of her on-again/off-again lover police officer Joe Morelli, she is sometimes called Cupcake. The two have known each other since they were children, but each has had other romances along the way. Plum’s got nicknames for Morelli, too, one of which is Officer Hottie. Plum’s partner in many of her bounty hunting cases is Ricardo Carlos Maños, but he’s always called Ranger. Ranger is an enigmatic character who doesn’t have a lot to say about his background. We do know though that he was in the U.S. Special Forces. Since one of those groups is called the Rangers, it’s a good bet that’s where Ranger got his nickname.
Ian Rankin’s John Rebus was given his unusual nickname by his nemesis Morris Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty. Cafferty is an Edinburgh crime boss who throughout the course of the Rebus novels gets involved in more than one of Rebus’ cases. The two men don’t trust each other but sometimes they have to work together and both of them know it’s in each one’s interest to do so. Years ago, Cafferty was on trial and Rebus was scheduled to testify. However, one of the lawyers confused Rebus with the previous witness in the trial, a man named Stroman. Since then, the name “Strawman” has been Cafferty’s way of mocking Rebus. As the series goes on, Rebus seems to mind the name less and less. Now and then, we even see the grudging respect these two opponents have for each other.
And then there’s Rita Mae Brown’s series featuring the former postmistress of tiny Crozet, Virginia. Her name, Mary Minor Haristeen, is often shortened to Harry. One of the “regulars” in this series is Crozet resident Olivia Craycroft. In the first novel Wish You Were Here, Craycroft’s husband Kelly is murdered in what looks at first like a terrible accident at the construction company he owns. But when his death is connected to others, Harry becomes certain that something larger is going on in town and she’s proven right. In that novel, we also learn that Olivia Craycroft’s nickname is “Boom Boom,” or “Boom,” a name she got because of her generous figure and her habit of flaunting it. Boom and Harry have an interesting history together. It’s in part because Harry’s husband had an affair with Boom that they got divorced. As the series moves on, all three characters cope with the realities of an affair, a divorce, and moving on in a small town where everyone knows everyone’s business. That story arc adds interest for those readers who’ve followed through the whole series.
Anthony Bidulka’s sleuth is Saskatoon private investigator Russell Quant. Quant’s content not to be a smash-‘em-up “he man” kind of hero. But he does like to be taken seriously as a professional. That’s not an easy achievement when your nickname is Puppy. Quant got that nickname from his mentor, clothing entrepreneur Anthony Gatt. Gatt and Quant’s uncle were partners for several years before Quant’s uncle died, so Quant’s grown up, you might say, with Gatt. Gatt proves helpful in several of the mysteries. He seems to know everyone and he has all sorts of connections that Quant finds useful. He also takes care of Quant and gives him good advice. He’s one of the few people Quant defers to, and the only one who gets to call him Puppy.
There are other examples of interesting nicknames in crime fiction. Sometimes nicknames are meant as insults, but often they end up being part of a bond between people. And in crime fiction, they can also be an interesting part of a character’s backstory.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Rocky Raccoon.