The history of detective fiction is strewn with oddly-named sleuths: Jack Frost, Hercule Poirot, Endeavour Morse, Peter Wimsey, Nero Wolfe, etc. Though they act as effective brand names, this seems odd because of how closely detective fiction usually adheres to the tenets of realism, with both reviews and cover blurbs praising qualities like “authenticity” and “convincing atmosphere”. The tendency to refer to detectives by their surname increases the effect; there is definitely something up when a realistic genre is full of characters like Frost, Zembla and Wield. Calling the main character after a classical hero, a medieval painter or an English sprite strains the carefully constructed sense of reality which crime novelists rely on to make their stories engaging. This isn’t an accident or a quirk: though not as obvious as John Bunyan’s Mr. Worldly Wiseman, or Ben Jonson’s Lord Politic Wouldbe, many detectives’ names are carefully chosen by their creators to send signals to the reader.
The most obvious examples are the protagonists of Ian Rankin and Colin Dexter: DI Rebus and Inspector Morse. Both their names suggest decoding or unscrambling; it was widely rumoured that the staccato notes at the beginning of the theme to each TV adaptation of Dexter’s novels spelt out the murderer’s name in Morse code. Rebus’ name goes even closer to the detective’s function: a rebus is a picture in which objects stand for words or syllables. (The current emblem of Oxford city council – a bull crossing a river – is a good example, spelling out “Ox-ford”.) Rebus’ name surely encapsulates the way a fictional detective works, taking physical objects and shifting them around until they spell out the criminal’s name.
The names of Inspectors Morse and Rebus also give a clue as to their characters. Both are loners, rather enigmatic, difficult to understand and even harder to explain. They’re both expert puzzle-solvers, and rather puzzling themselves. Other detectives seem to be named more for their milieu: Harry Bosch and Jack Frost spring to mind. The lurid LA underworld of pleasure, violence and corruption which Bosch inhabits inevitably reminds the reader of the landscapes of his medieval namesake, with their distorted, perverted-looking figures in surreal, hellish situations. Jack Frost, on the other hand, is named after the old English goblin supposed to inhabit the winter landscape. It’s an apt metaphor for his world: ageing, widowed, living in the invented post-industrial town of “Denton”, Frost’s bleak humour is the warmest thing about him. (The TV versions of the Frost novels picked up on this hint, with a lot of bleak, chilly lighting.) Unlike “Hieronymus Bosch”, though, Frost’s surname and first name are both sufficiently commonplace not to draw attention to themselves, remaining as an undertone to the character.
Suggestive names also appear in the work of the grande dame of detective fiction, Agatha Christie. One of her less famous characters is the subject of a book of short stories, The Mysterious Mr. Quinn. Harley Quinn, to give his full name, tends to appear unexpectedly, and help solve crimes, before disappearing again – his name links him with Harlequin, who in various sources is a devil from Dante’s Inferno, a spirit charged with revenging the dead, and a masked character from the Commedia del’Arte. Rather more subtle is Hercule Poirot, whose name contains elements of both “Hercules”, the classical hero, and “Pierrot”, the French clown – an interesting combination of heroism and buffoonery. The name reflects Christie’s practice of presenting Poirot alternately as a figure of fun and a stern emissary of justice. Dorothy L. Sayers balances her detective hero in a similar way – Peter Wimsey’s name has all the connotations of his silly-ass-about-town persona, but he is shadowed by his middle name – “Death.”
In fact the names Dorothy L. Sayers gives to her main characters are worth pausing over. Peter Wimsey’s name is underlined by his family motto, “As my wimsey takes me”, chiming with the inconsequential, lightweight character he presents to the world. Deeper down, Wimsey is anything but whimsical: the mental scars of the First World War and the profound ambivalence he feels about solving crimes which will send people to the gallows suggest an ironic twist to the name. The woman he loves is called Harriet Vane, a name which becomes suggestive in Strong Poison and the succeeding novels, when her pride refuses to let her admit to her love for Wimsey after he saves her from a false murder charge. As Peter pursues his courtship, attempting to mask his feelings with his off-hand charm, Harriet can’t put aside her pride – “Whimsy” courts “Vain” unsuccessfully for several books. When she finally does accept him in Gaudy Night, their agreement is spoken in Latin and he addresses her by the academic title “magistra”, allowing them to escape from the names which have kept them apart.
Similarly nuanced, though less important to the story, is the name of DS Wield in Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels. Inevitably nicknamed “Wieldy” by his colleagues, the name seems ironic at first, given the stress laid on Wield’s startling ugliness and the awkward issue of being (almost) openly gay in a traditional community like the Yorkshire police. “Unwieldy” would seems an apter title for the detective. However, as the characters and readers get to know Wield better, and he finds a steady relationship, he seems more “wieldy”, and the name begins to fit. Not so with his junior colleague PC Hector, unfortunately. Naming the most hopeless and incompetent policeman on the force after one of the legendary heroes of Troy is clearly some sort of joke on Reginald Hill’s part.
Thus names are much more than just labels for crime novelists. They can suggest atmosphere, explain or obscure a character, invest the detective with legendary stature or strip it away. They can even act as a puzzle in themselves – when Michael Dibdin’s detective Aurelio Zen takes the alias Alphonso Zembla, we are left wondering over the significance of the name change. Is he a dissembler, a resembler, a false semblance? As with so many puzzles in crime fiction, we can only find out by reading on.