Many people don’t go by the names they were given at birth. They may use a middle name, a nickname, or another name entirely. Sometimes, that’s not a big problem. And it’s perfectly legal to go through the process of changing one’s name. But name changes, and using different names, can make for real challenges for the police.
If the police are doing background checks on one name, they may not know to look for information under another name as well. There may also be connections between people involved in a case, but the police might not know about those connections if one of those people is living and working under a different name.
Name issues come up quite a bit in crime fiction, and that makes sense. They can add plot points and twists, character layers, and more. But they’re most effective if they’re used carefully and credibly (and not as a big surprise at the end of a story!).
For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery, James McCarthy is arrested for the murder of his father, Charles. There’s evidence against him, too, as he was seen and overheard quarreling with his father just before the murder. He doesn’t have an alibi, either. But he claims he’s innocent, and his fiancée, Alice Turner, believes him. She asks the police to go over the case again, and Inspector Lestrade reluctantly agrees. He enlists Sherlock Holmes to investigate, and Holmes and Dr. Watson look into the matter. They find that, just before he died, McCarthy uttered what seemed at the time to be a meaningless jumble of words. But it turns out that he was actually saying the name of his killer. Once Holmes works out what that name is and to whom it belongs, he solves the case.
There are a few Agatha Christie stories in which names turn out to matter a great deal. I won’t give sleuths or titles for fear of spoilers. But in several that I can think of, the fact that people are using different names plays a major role in a case. Very often those changed names hide family or other connections to an investigation. And when the sleuth finds out what the character’s real name is, the pieces start to fall into place.
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 how most people know him. From the beginning of the story, we learn that he is planning to kill a man. Six months earlier, Carines’ beloved son, Martin ‘Martie,’ was killed in a hit-and-run incident, and Cairnes intends to kill the man who was driving the car. After a bit of detective work, Cairnes discovers that the driver was probably a man named George Rattery. Using his pen name, he finds a way to get an ‘in’ to Rattery’s home and is soon staying there as a guest. His plan is for Rattery to have a ‘drowning accident’ while they are out boating together. But, although the two men do go out on the water, the plan doesn’t work, because Rattery has found out about it. They return to land, and, later that afternoon, Rattery dies of what turns out to be poison. Cairnes says that he is innocent. After all, why would he plan to poison a man he planned to drown? He asks poet and PI Nigel Strangeways to investigate, and Strangeways agrees. He finds that this case is both simpler and more complicated than it seems on the surface.
Mari Hannah’s The Murder Wall is the first of her Kate Daniels novels. In it, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Daniels gets the chance to be Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) when Alan Stephens is murdered in his home. In one plot thread, Daniels comes to believe that this murder is linked to two murders that occurred almost a year earlier. At first, the connection isn’t that obvious. But then there’s another murder. And another. These deaths are linked, and Daniels faces real danger as she gets close to the truth about the deaths. It turns out that one person’s change of name has meant that a major clue isn’t picked up at first. It’s not until Daniels learns about the name change that she makes the connection.
And then there’s Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead, the first in her Esa Khattak/Rachel Getty series. Both work for the Community Policing Service (CPS) of the Canadian federal government, which is usually concerned with anti-bigotry and other community issues. So it’s a surprise when Khattak is asked to investigate the death of Christopher Drayton, whose body was found at the bottom of Scarborough (Ontario) Bluffs. His fall could be accidental, but it’s unlikely. In either case, it’s not the sort of investigation that usually concerns the CPS. Then, Khattak learns that Drayton may have been Dražen Krstić, a notorious Bosnian war criminal known as the butcher of Srebrenica. If so, there could be many reasons for someone to want him dead. And if that’s who Drayton was, it makes sense that he would go by a different name to escape his enemies. But if that’s true, how did a war criminal get into Canada? The case has delicate and challenging implications on political, social, and other levels.
Going by a different name doesn’t necessarily mean trouble. But in crime fiction, the answer to the question, ‘What’s in a name?’ is sometimes, ‘Everything.’ These are just a few examples. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Rocky Raccoon.