Nicknames are a big part of many cultures. Sometimes they’re simply shortened versions of people’s names. Other times they’re descriptive (e.g. either ‘Curly’ or ‘Baldy’ for someone with no hair). Still other times they’re intended as insults. Either way, nicknames can add depth to a fictional character. And sometimes, they’re pretty funny, too. Here are just a few crime-fictional examples to show you what I mean.
In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot is persuaded to travel to the village of Broadhinny to investigate the death of a charwoman. Everyone thinks the murderer is her lodger James Bentley, but Superintendent Spence is beginning to think Bentley is innocent. And as Poirot gets to know the various villagers, he suspects that several of them are hiding things that Mrs. McGinty may have discovered. One of Bentley’s few friends, former co-worker Maude Williams, wants to help clear Bentley’s name. Poirot enlists her aid as a sort of spy in the home of Roger and Edith Wetherby, with the goal of finding a clue that might link them to Mrs. McGinty’s death. The Wetherbys are not pleasant, friendly people; in fact, here is how Maude describes them during a conversation with Poirot:
‘Old Frozen Fish was shut up in his study as usual…
So I nipped upstairs into Her Acidity’s bedroom…’
Those nicknames really are quite descriptive, actually.
In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we meet former school principal Thea Farmer. She’s had the perfect home built for herself in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains, and is looking forward to living there. But then, some bad financial decisions and bad luck get in her way, and she’s forced to sell that perfect home and settle for the smaller house next door – a house she calls ‘the hovel.’ To add insult to injury, her dream home is purchased by Frank Campbell and Ellyce Carrington, and they soon move in. Thea is contemptuous of the new arrivals and very resentful that they’re living in ‘her’ home. In fact, her name for them is ‘the Invaders.’ It’s quite reflective of what she really thinks of them and of her perception of life. Then, unexpectedly, she develops a sort of awkward friendship with Frank’s niece Kim, who comes to live with him and Ellyce. So when Thea begins to suspect that they are not providing an appropriate home for a child, she wants something done about it. The police can’t do much, so Thea makes plans of her own…
Of course, not all nicknames are meant as insults. In Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road, for instance, Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest investigates when former prospector Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins is killed. At first it looks as though he was murdered as the result of a drunken quarrel. But Tempest suspects otherwise and starts to ask questions. Doc got his nickname because he was a geologist, and although he was a little eccentric, there are people who respected his knowledge. Tempest’s own miner/prospector father is nicknamed ‘Motor Jack.’
In Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors, Australian Federal Police (AFP) officer Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen is taking some time off duty to recover from the events of Dead Set. But he’s persuaded to come back to active duty when two politically charged murders occur. Alec Dennet, a member of Gough Whitlam’s (1972-1975) government, has been writing his memoirs with his editor Lorraine Starke. One night they’re both killed, and the AFP wants Chen back at work to help investigate. One possibility is that Dennet and Starke were killed because of the ‘dirty laundry’ he was going to include in his memoirs. There are several people in powerful places who don’t want that to happen. But there are other possibilities too, so Chen and his team have their work cut out for them, as the saying goes. Throughout the novel, Chen works with Constable Paul ‘Voodoo’ Filipowski, who turns out to be very helpful on the case. Voodoo got his name because he was badly injured in one particular incident, but survived, although odds were he wouldn’t. Chen also works with another teammate nicknamed Talkative and with Baby’s Arm, a police videographer.
Fans of Tarquin Hall’s series featuring Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri will know that nicknames are woven all through that series. Puri himself is sometimes nicknamed ‘Chubby’ because of his fondness for food. His office boy has the equally unflattering name of Doorstop, because he does nothing all day. Then there’s Handbrake, Puri’s driver, and Facecream, one of his investigators who has the knack of blending in wherever she goes. There’s also Tube Light, who is Puri’s top operative and quite skilled with things technical; and Flush, who got his nickname because his was the first house in his village with indoor plumbing.
Sometimes, nicknames are actually more appealing than a character’s real name. For instance, Anya Lipska’s DC Natalie Kershaw frequently reports to DS Alvin ‘Streaky’ Bacon.
‘Alvin, she [Kershaw] thought. Who knew?’
Her boss doesn’t mind being called Streaky. Alvin is another thing.
And that’s the thing about nicknames. They can be insulting, a sign of bonding, or simply descriptive. They can also add solid character depth. Which fictional nicknames have stayed with you? If you’re a writer, do you give your characters nicknames?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Go-Betweens’ Head Full of Steam.