But Does Anybody Know My Name?*

Names are funny things. They’re one of the most important ways by which we identify ourselves. Imagine, for instance, not knowing your own name. And yet, we do sometimes use different names. For instance, if you’re a writer, perhaps you use a pen name for some of your work. Or, you may use your legal given name in some circumstances, but another name for others.

You might be surprised at the important role that names can play in crime fiction. But it makes sense if you think about it. Use of a different name can be a useful tool for hiding the identity of a murderer. And, there are many espionage novels and other thrillers where a character goes undercover using a different name. There are other times, too, when a sleuth or another character might not want to use her or his real name. If the author’s going to do that, it’s got to be done carefully. Otherwise, a change of name can be confusing for the reader. And it can be a bit too convenient, too. But there are times when playing with a character’s name can add to a story.

There are several Agatha Christie novels, for instance, where names are changed or switched. There’s even one in which a character’s real name turns out to give an important clue as to the killer in the story. And, in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal) Hercule Poirot changes his name temporarily. Wealthy Richard Abernethie has died, and there’s a possibility that someone in his family might have killed him. So, to get a better sense of what the family members are like, Poirot spends the weekend at the family home, under the guise of possibly buying the property to use as a home for elderly war refugees. As fans can tell you, Poirot is convinced that his name is well-known. So, he goes under the name of M. Pontarlier – and affects a distinctly ‘un-English’ persona. He even pretends not to know much English. And that gives him the opportunity to observe much more than anyone thinks.

Poirot isn’t the only sleuth to go undercover and take a different name. For instance, in Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar, Bangkok PI Jayne Keeney learns that her good friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse has been killed by police. The official explanation is that the police had come to arrest Didi for the murder of his partner, Sanga ‘Nou.’ According to the report, Didi resisted arrest so violently that he had to be killed. But Keeney doesn’t believe this. What’s more, she doesn’t believe that her friend killed his partner. So, she decides to investigate. And to do this, she takes on the name Simone Whitfield. That’s the name she uses when she meets Australian Federal Police (AFP) agent Mark D’Angelo. He’s in Thailand as part of a special task force looking into the child sex trade. He and Keeney have very different ways of going about addressing that problem, and it’s interesting to see how she interacts with him in her ‘Simone’ persona.

In Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die, we are introduced to mystery novelist Frank Cairnes. He writes under the name of Felix Lane, and that’s the name he uses when he decides to find out who killed his beloved son, Martin ‘Martie.’ The boy died in a hit-and-run incident, and Cairnes wants to find out who was driving. He believes that he may be too well-known under his own name, so he grows his beard out and ‘becomes’ Felix Lane. Then, he moves back to the town where he and Martie lived, and tracks down the man who he believes is responsible for Martie’s death. The only problem is, the most likely suspect, a man named George Rattery, has found Carines’ diary, and now knows his plan. He tells Cairnes that if anything happens to him, Cairnes will be the immediate suspect. Later that day, Rattery dies of what turns out to be poison. Cairnes contacts poet and private investigator Nigel Strangeways, and asks for his help. His claim is that he had planned to kill Rattery, but not with poison. And why would he carry out his first plan, and also make such an elaborate plan to poison the victim? Strangeways is inclined to believe him, and starts looking for other possibilities. And, in the end, he finds out who killed George Rattery.

It’s not uncommon in the sex industry for people to use ‘stage names.’ There are, in fact, a lot of good reasons for people who work in that industry not to use their own names. We see this, for instance, in Leigh Redhead’s Peepshow. In that novel, we meet private investigator Simone Kirsch, who also works at times as a stripper. When she is hired to investigate the murder of a table dancing club called the Red Room, she goes undercover there as a newly-hired dancer. She uses the name Vivien Leigh, and plenty of people think the mystique of the name suits her.

In John Grisham’s The Chamber, Chicago lawyer Adam Hall travels to his firm’s Memphis office to help on the case of Sam Cayhall, who’s about to be executed for a bombing related to his Ku Klux Klan activities. We learn before long that Cayhall had been involved in Klan activity for a number of years, and that his son, Eddie, was disgusted at it all. When his father was convicted, Eddie Cayhall changed his name and moved to California. Later, he returned to the South (but not to Memphis) as Eddie Hall. He was the father of Adam Hall (who was actually born Alan Cayhall). So, as it turns out, Sam Cayhall is Adam Hall’s grandfather. That doesn’t make anything easier as Hall learns more about the bombing, and about his own family history. Along with trying to keep his grandfather from getting the death penalty, Hall also has to confront his own past, and it’s not going to be easy.

Names really are an important part of how we appear to the world. That’s why they can be so useful in a crime story. They can disguise or create an identity, and they can allow for interesting character development.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kinks’ You Don’t Know My Name.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, John Grisham, Leigh Redhead, Nicholas Blake

22 responses to “But Does Anybody Know My Name?*

  1. Keishon

    Honestly, I hadn’t given this theme much thought but yes, names are important. For years my grandmother called my father by another name that wasn’t what you would call a nickname either. She just had a habit of doing that sort of thing. There are stories that emphasize the importance of names/identity as you point out. In the animated film, Spirited Away, that I’ve watched many times with my nieces, is heavy on the name/identity theme. I think it’s a great theme. Thanks again for another thoughtful post.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Keishon. I appreciate it. And thanks for mentioning Spirited Away. I have to admit I’ve not (yet) seen that one, but I’ve heard it’s good. And it’s interesting how people will pick up other names as they go along in life. Sometimes it’s a ‘family’ thing, and sometimes it’s something else. I always find it fascinating how people acquire names besides their own.

  2. You’ve defeated me tonight in terms of examples! I had forgotten that Poirot had used an alias – wouldn’t work in these days of Google images – those moustaches would be instantly recognisable! Actually when I saw the post title, I thought it was going to be about characters suffering from amnesia… I could have come up with examples for that… 😉

    • 😆 I need to do a post on amnesia, FictionFan! And you’re right. With today’s technology, there’s no way Poirot could pass as M. Pontarlier (or anyone else, really). He has far too distinctive an appearance. As you say, those moustaches would give him right away.

  3. kathy d

    OH, names, pseudonyms. What about women who are married using their family names for their jobs? Or for their Identities? Such as Paola Falier, who is married to Guido Brunetti, Donna Leon’s detective.
    Or how about terrific characters’ names that are unforgettable? I, for one, love the name of Leon’s opera singer, Flavia Petrelli. I’ve never forgotten it.
    Then, of course, there are the nicknames, especially of villains. Michael Connelly has written about “the Scarecrow,” and “the Poet.” Who are they is the question?
    There is a lot in a name.

    • There is, indeed, a lot in a name, Kathy. And you’re right about the names given to certain villains. That, in itself, could be a post. You make a solid point, too, about the number of characters who are married, but use the names of their families of origin. That happens an awful lot in real life, too, so I’m glad you brought it up.

  4. Such an interesting post, Margot! Loved it! 🙂

  5. Funny I should see this post right after posting a review in which I lament the trope of the nameless protagonist. Because I agree with you…names are important…and it’s really annoying when characters don’t have them 🙂

    • It really is difficult when a protagonist or other major character hasn’t got a name, Bernadette. And it is interesting timing about our two posts. Great minds… 🙂

  6. Col

    No examples forthcoming from me either. I’ll have to check out Peepshow.

  7. Margot, you always have a unique way of getting me to see a story in a new light. Thanks for that. Names do add to a story, both in books and in life.

  8. I love trying to figure out why the author chose the character’s name…if they matched the name to the character’s personality, the overall theme, or if the name itself is a clue.

  9. I hadn’t realised (or forgotten) that Poirot used an alias. I’ve always wondered about people who do this as I’m sure I’d forget to respond if it wasn’t my name – the reflex to respond when your name is called is so innate!

    • I think it is, too, Cleo. I’d suspect that would be very hard to get past if, say, you were in some sort of witness protection situation. You’d have to get used to a completely different name and identity. That must be hard to do.

  10. I’ve just been reading an early Poirot short story in which he goes undercover as a plumber! I’m going to guess with a false name to fit your theme – but I think most of us would have a hard job picturing him mending the pipes, and I don’t think Christie would have done that later in the oeuvre. (He is reminiscing about a case where he was younger, but still…)

    • No, I don’t think he would have, either, Moira. Poirot himself admits to being a bit of a snob, and I’m quite certain his ego wouldn’t have done well in the guise of a plumber.

  11. tracybham

    The place where I notice this the most is spy thrillers, as you have noted. Sometimes that makes them even more confusing. I recently read The Bourne Identity, and the reader doesn’t even know the protagonist’s identity most of the book, and there are other characters that go by multiple names.

    • That’s exactly the sort of thing I mean, Tracy, so I’m glad you mentioned that book. It’s true that with espionage thrillers, and similar books, you do see quite a lot of that name-changing and alternate identity.

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