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.