I Didn’t Catch Your Name*

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, one of the most basic facts we learn about people, including fictional characters, is their names. Certainly, it’s one of the first things we find out when we meet someone new. A name is an important identifier, and in a novel, it’s an important way in which authors make characters distinctive.

And yet, there plenty of crime-fictional characters, even main characters, who aren’t given names. And it’s interesting to see how authors give those characters roles in a story without naming them. Here are just a few examples; I’m sure you’ll think of others.

Fredric Brown’s short story Don’t Look Behind You is addressed to the reader. The unnamed narrator tells the story of a printer named Justin Dean, and a suave man named Harley.  They meet when Harley goes to the printing shop where Justin works to have some business cards made. Then, they get into a business of their own. Trouble begins when they get involved with some ruthless people, and that leads to real ugliness. The story has a lot of impact because it’s addressed to the reader, and told in the first person, much as someone might tell you about an event. And that adds power to a twist at the end of the story.

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca isn’t usually thought of as a crime novel, but if you’ve read it, you know that it involves crime. As fans can tell you, the story is told in first person from the point of view of the second wife of Maxim ‘Max’ de Winter. When she and her new husband move in together at his home, Manderley, she tries to settle in and enjoy her new life. But she’s soon made to feel very unwelcome. In particular, the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, resents her presence. It comes out that Mrs. Danvers was especially devoted to Max’s first wife, Rebecca. And she misses no opportunity to make it clear that the second Mrs. de Winter is a poor substitute at best. Rebecca’s presence seems to haunt everyone, and the new Mrs. de Winter isn’t even sure her husband actually loves her. As the story goes on, we learn more about what Rebecca was really like. And the truth changes everything. Interestingly, we never learn the name of the narrator. And, in a way, that fact underscores the powerful role Rebecca’s memory plays at Manderley.

In Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs, we meet an art restorer, who’s visiting a monastery in the Swiss Alps. He’s interested in some frescoes in the monastery’s chapel, and considering restoring them. During his visit, he meets an old man who offers to tell him a story – ‘a good one’ – if that story can be recorded. The art restorer agrees and buys some cassettes (this part of the story takes place in the 1970s). Then, the old man tells his story. It begins with the arrival of Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco and his family to New York in the early 20th Century. Immigrants from Italy, they try to make their way in their new home, and they do well. Then, disaster happens. Franco gets into a bar fight, and ends up killing his opponent, a man named Luigi Lupo. The victim happens to be the son of underworld boss Tonio Lupo, who curses the Franco family for the loss of his son. In fact, he promises that all three of Ben Franco’s sons will die at the age of forty-two, the age Luigi was when he was murdered. The old man then goes on to tell what happened to those sons. We never learn the name of the art restorer. And for much of the novel, we don’t know who the old man is, either. This keeps the focus of the story on the Franco family, rather than the narrator or the old man.

Kalpana Swaminathan’s The Page 3 Murders takes place mostly at the posh Mumbai home of Dr. Hilla Driver. She decides to have a special ‘foodie’ weekend at her home, both as a sort of housewarming and as a celebration for her niece’s upcoming eighteenth birthday. Hilla’s chef, Tarok Ghosh, wants to put the house on the culinary map, as the saying goes, so he plans extra-special meals, with the culminating event to be an elaborate seven-course dinner. One of the guests is Hilla’s good friend, a retired police detective named Lalli, who’s accompanied by her niece. Several members of Mumbai’s glitterati are also invited, and the weekend begins. On the night of the dinner, Ghosh makes a custom-made appetizer for each guest. It’s soon clear from those appetizers that each guest is hiding something, and that Ghosh knows their secrets. By the end of the night, he’s been murdered. Later, another murder is discovered. Together, Lalli and her niece discover who the killer is, and what the actual motive was for both murders. This novel is told from the point of view (first person) of Lalli’s niece. Interestingly enough, she is not named, although she plays an important role in the novel. The focus is really on the other guests.

And of course, I couldn’t discuss nameless crime-fictional characters without mentioning Bill Pronzini’s San Francisco PI. In fact, that series is often called the Nameless series, because for much of it, Pronzini doesn’t tell us what his sleuth’s name is. The stories are told in first person, past tense, so it’s not especially awkward.

Still, in most cases, it really can be a challenge to create a main character who doesn’t have a name. Authors can make it work by having that character narrate the story, or by keeping the focus of the story elsewhere. But it’s not easy to accomplish.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ I Will.


Filed under Apostolos Doxiadis, Bill Pronzini, Daphne du Maurier, Frederic Brown, Kalpana Swaminathan

15 responses to “I Didn’t Catch Your Name*

  1. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    Another gem from crime writer/blogger Margot Kinberg!

  2. A name is always the first thing I invent in a story. But sometimes, later on, I know it’s wrong and change it.

  3. Didn’t Dashiell Hammett have an unnamed detective, or is my memory messing with me again? Before I started reviewing I didn’t mind a nameless character, but now I think they should be banned by law! I get so tired of calling them ‘the protagonist’ or ‘the main character’ or whatever. After reviewing Rebecca, I decided that in future if authors don’t name their characters, I will… 😉

    • Haha! It is hard to write a review without giving a name for a major character, isn’t it, FictionFan? It can be done, but it’s tricky. And it requires a very skillful use of synonyms for ‘protagonist.’ Oh, and good call on Dashiell Hammett. Red Harvest features a detective who isn’t named. Hammett usually named his characters, but not in that case.

  4. kathy d.

    When a story is told in the first person, that character doesn’t need to have a name. In the film “Dark Passage,” Humphrey Bogart is telling his story but I don’t think he says his name. Others day it.
    I don’t think I’ve come across this plot device in mysteries, even when told in the first person i a book. But I did read Zadie Smith’s newest book “Swing Time.” The book is written from the first person point of view and she does not have a name. No one ever mentions it either. I think it’s a bit strange.

    • I agree that the use of the first person with no name used can be tricky, Kathy. Sometimes it works quite well. Other times it doesn’t work so well. I do think it’s got to be done very carefully. And thanks for mentioning Dark Passage. Bogart did some fine films.

  5. I’ve just always automatically thought that every character has a name. Rebecca is a great example. Not knowing her first name definitely points out Rebecca’s influence still remains. Great post, Margot.

  6. Very fantastic and nice post.It,s extremely good and very helpful for me.
    Thanks for sharing.
    John Pellow Brisbane

  7. Col

    Time to get back to Pronzini’s Nameless series! I like Mr No-name.

  8. Nameless characters annoy me unless they are extremely well-done – it takes a great author with a good plan to bring it off, in my view. That said, your examples are winners, and that first story you mention is the most terrifying one I have ever read. I can still remember reading it the first time, while alone in a house: I think you can guess how I felt…

    • Oh, I can well imagine it, Moira. Don’t Look Behind You is a really scary story. And it shows how hard it is, I think, to pull off not giving a main character a name. Brown did it beautifully in the story, but it often doesn’t work well. If it’s not done smoothly, it can make a story ‘clunky.’

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