Friday, November 30, 2012

Character names that carry meaning

Two of the books in Wednesday's year's-best-in-crime-reading post feature protagonists with especially resonant names: Benjamin Sobieck's 4 Funny Detective Stories — Starring Maynard Soloman (Solo man. Get it?) and Sara Gran's Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead. (What does the prototypical fictional detective do if not use her wits to make murky situations clear?)

Declan Burke's Slaughter's Hound has some names fraught with meaning, too, if you're up on your Irish. Sobieck, Gran, and Burke have a light touch with names, but this significant-name thing brings peril. Get too obvious, and you risk sounding like John Bunyan.

Here's your question: What are your favorite character names that bear a message? What character names go too far and hit you over the head with their significance?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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64 Comments:

Blogger Jerry House said...

Somewhere in the cold, dark dungeons of literary Hell, there is a book by Emily Loring with a character whose villainy was clumsily preshadowed by her name: B. Ware, the widow.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger Howard Sherman said...

Jack Reacher. His last name says it all in terms of what he accomplishes in each and every book.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

I have always been intrigued with Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe. He is neither Nero (slightly demented and dangerous) nor wolf (predatory pack animal), but he is rather more like Cicero (contemplative and lyrical) and fox (solitary and crafty). Of course, Cicero Fox just doesn't sound quite right, and I may be reading too much into Stout.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Well, if you want to hire a private detective who will tirelessly dig up the dirt on someone, why not hire the nearly alliterative Sam Spade? Of course, I'm sure Hammett never intend anything that obvious. Or did he?

November 30, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Here is one of the really golden oldies. Consider Sophocles' ancient Greek "murder mystery" in which Oedipus sets out to find and punish the murderer of the late King Laius. Oedipus' name means "swollen foot," but--as Athenian audiences recognized--his name contains a pun: the first two syllables, when pronounced a bit differently, mean instead "I know." There's irony for you. Oedipus at the outset does not know the truth, but he will eventually (to his everlasting peril) know the truth. And isn't acquisition of knowledge (even when it causes pain) the goal of everyone, including all good detectives?

November 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Jerry:

B. Ware, you say? That sounds too bad to be true.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Howard, I've never read Lee Child, but I've always thought that Reacher was a fine name for what an action hero does. I'll refrain from speculating about "Jack."

A good, strong, monosyllabic first name does seem suitable, though.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger Jerry House said...

Peter, luckily I have never inflicted myself with Emily Loring, but my wife swears it's true -- although she has corrected me: it was "Bea Ware, the widow." (Kitty also tells be that another character was "Babbling Brooke.") Kitty was in junior high school when she read these and it has scarred her life forever.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., when Nero Wolfe rages and does things like feed a dictionary to the fire, I sometimes think he has a bit of Nero in him. Maybe a bit of Constantine, too, but hardly a lot of Marcus Aurelius.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Jerry, after reading your comment, I did a search for "Emily Loring" and "B. Ware" and found they have been on your mind for a while.

"Babbling Brooke" is full of suggestive possibilities. And I like "Beatrice Ware," too, come to think of it. Thanks for enriching my day.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I don't know if Hammett meant anything that obvious, but I had already started reading Declan Hughes' novels about Ed Loy when I found out that a loy is a kind of spade.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

The character names are part of the reason why JK Rowling's books so insufferable for grown ups.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I didn't know the second, punning significance of Oedipus' name. Thanks.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian. I've never read them, but all this stuff about Muggles and so one does not enhance the chances that I will ever read them.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

I would offer another ancient text example: Consider the Hebrew scriptures and the first murder mystery when YHWH (i.e., the divine authority whose cryptic "name" is sometimes translated as "He who creates") confronts Cain about the missing (murdered) Abel. Does this not establish the precedent for all subsequent, less godlike sleuths who must recreate or reestablish order from out of the chaos by finding and exposing the criminals among us?

November 30, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

RT

Even as a kid that passage in Genesis always irritated me. God creates Cain with the foreknowledge from the moment of Cain's creation that he will kill Abel. In the very process of the creative act he knows that Cain is going to be a killer. It's like dropping a brick on someone's head and blaming the brick.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Adrian, I probably should not have introduced Hebrew scriptures into this blog discussion, which ought to focus more properly on detectives beyond borders. However, since I have already opened the door, I would argue that God (for lack of a better name) does not have knowledge of the future. Perhaps that makes me something of an Enlightenment deist. I would further argue that the Cain-Abel-YHWH story is a mythic metaphor with meaning more properly attached to human conduct than divine conduct. So, the bottom line is this: perhaps I should have kept YHWH out of the discussion. However, isn't it true that modern day fictional sleuths serve one mythic, metaphoric purpose: the recreation of order out of chaos? After all, we as readers would not settle for unresolved (chaotic) endings.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I had not known the Tetragrammaton (cool word, that) was translated that way. The letters are the same as those that form the verb "to be" in Hebrew (יִהְיֶה), so that makes sense.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

RT

The whole of the Bible makes a lot more sense if God isn't infinite in his powers...it makes explicable all the squabbling with local deities and the constant backsliding into Baal, house god and nature worship of the Hebrews. But if he isn't infinite, he's just some dude who can do a lot of clever stuff: a human from the future, a powerful alien...whatever. I dont think many Orthodox Christians or Jews would be too happy with that interpretation.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I think all that omniscience and foreknowledge stuff came later. The text of Genesis does not say God knew from the moment of creation Cain would kill. In fact, when he comes looking for Adam, he even says, "Where are you?"

November 30, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Peter, I should hasten to amend my comment by saying that THE offered translation is merely one of many possibles translations; but, of course, any ineffable divinity offering up his or her identity to the Hebrews would have done so, even inscrutably, in Hebrew, which seems rather limited in scope, doesn't it, and then all sorts of attempts (and failures) to name the ineffable would naturally follow in the subsequent 3000 or so years--or is it more, or is it less--but, the bottom line is this: do not be mislead by the poetic license I have used in offering the simple translation in the posting. God knows, I don't know the real meaning.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Correction: "misled" not "mislead"

November 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I meant only that I had not previously seen the name translated that way -- and that the translation makes etynological sense.

As for omniscience, I just did a quick and dirty search and found a site that offers what it says are scriptural passages that state that God is omniscient. Most of the passages say no such thing, but the one that does say so unequivocally is Act 15:18. That is, the idea of God's omniscience and foreknowledge may have evolved only gradually, and after the text of the Hebrew Bible was composed.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Peter, I am in no way a biblical scholar (or devoted reader of the bible), and my few undergraduate courses in OT, NT, and philosophy of religion (taken so, so long ago), and my lifetime of occasional "research" and reading convince me that both the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian new testament books--and their many commentators over the centuries--have obscured the truth. Yes, I suspect the truth--such as it is--remains hidden within all those sacred texts, within their metaphors and tropes, and I carry on (a bit like a stubborn Poirot) in my belief that the truth can eventually be revealed if I will simply persist in using my little grey cells. This notion of mine, however, is undermined by Flannery O'Connor who said that a person must believe in order to understand, and a person who seeks to understand first without believing cannot succeed. Of course, she was a profoundly committed Roman Catholic, and her commitment to that logic makes complete sense.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I just take the commonsense view that the biblical texts were assembled over centuries and reflect different sets of beliefs, and opinions of successive sets of authors and editors.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Well, we've now cycled back to focusing on editors as being responsible (i.e., recall the Bilal discussions in a separate thread).

Now, without further digressions into OT/NT matters, I retreat into thinking about the original question in this discussion thread: suggestive names in detective fiction.

--30--

November 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Has anyone written a story with an Adam Furstman as protagonist?

In any case, the topics of crime fiction and the Bible are not as remote as one might think. A panel called Jewish Noir at Noircon in Philadelphia suggested that the Jewish view (The world is messed up but you have to keep trying to fix it anyway) is more suited to noir than the Christian view, that everything will be all right in the end, with the Resurrection.

I am reading a novel bu Jo Nesbo, who has said the name Harry Hole for his progatonist was intended to invoke the idea of an everyman, even a bumpkin.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Perhaps Adam Furstman be dispatched by Paradise Detective Agency to Eden Prairie, MN, where he will investigate the murder of Abel Graves, and he will eventually--in less than 7 days--discover that the murderer is none other than Herman Kane, son of Eve Gardner.

And the groans in reaction to really bad names can be heard across the land!

November 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Something is hovering over the face of the water, I'd say, but I'm unsure it's teh spirit of God.

The name Abel Graves is worth salvaging from that mess if worked subtly into a story.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

What? You want to reject Eve Garner and Herman Kane? (Groan!) BTW, a Mr. Graves appears as a character in Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," a superb gothic suspense tale from the mid-20th century. Of course, his name foreshadows the unpleasantness that befalls the winner of that lottery. Students in LIT classes generally "like" the story, but they usually reject the notion that scapegoats (i.e., lottery winners) are sometimes unavoidable in societies.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I read "The Lottery" for high school English class, but I don't remember an Adam Graves.

What the hell do high school students know? And should I be relieved that my group did not win this week's big Powerball jackpot?

November 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

America, or at least American Republicans, in some parts of the country, at least, groaned at Herman Cain earlier this year.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

I absolutely never catch on to the significance of character names. You'd have to hit me over the head with a loy to do so. And you'd mentioned that loy here before, but I'd already forgotten it.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd say that at least since the seventeenth century, the best significant names work perfectly well even if one does not recognize what they signify. For all I know, Sara Gran would think my theory about Claire DeWitt's name. The story certainly would work just as well if the character had some other name.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

In one way, you can see that I make a pretty poor Finnegans Wake disciple. But Joyce himself said, Relax! You don't have to get it all, people!

Well, that's a paraphrase of course...

November 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, you're a good Joycean. You're reading the damn book, after all. One can enjoy character names as a little extra, not the main course, but more like a mint that you get with the check.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

In that same vein, I love reading perceptive reviews of books after I've read the book and finding out all the things I miss. When reading Finnegans Wake though, it happens about a thousand times a page.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I like reading perceptive reviews of other arts irrespective of whether I've seen or intend to see the performance. I like a review that turns into an essay about its subject.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

Me too, but I don't really like spoilers.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I was thinking more of movie, theater, and music reviews. But even a good book review can offer intelligent discussion without saying who did it or whether the hero dies.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

It can, and it's good to try to write in that way if you're writing reviews. But I really do find that it's better to scan a review lightly, read or watch the thing reviewed, and then come back to the review and learn from it.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The matter is largely academic with me when it comes to crime novels. I general read what I read in that field based on what's in the wind, only my wind is not always the one that blows through publishers' and reviewers' offices. I'll try what I hear about in blogs written by people I respect or at conventions. Or I may try an author whose name comes up in discussions of a writer whose work I like.

I mean, read a newspaper review of a crime novel, and you'll get told that Benjamin Black has finally mastered the art of crime writing, or touting Tana French or Gillian FLynn or Jo Nesbo. That's good for them, but they don't me, and I don't need newspapers to tell me about them.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

I don't know exactly how I come to books myself, but I do know that's what thought of as new and hot is usually something I don't feel I need to bother with. In terms of my job, they don't need my help, and in terms of myself, I like to follow my own thread through things. But I have exposure to a lot of things through my job, so I don't mean to fault people who rely more on various lists. Every once in a while I do get curious about extremely popular titles. Usually I'm somewhat disappointed by the hype, but not always.

November 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In the case of Irish crime fiction, the answer is simple for me: With the exception of Ken Bruen, I think I've come to every Irish crime writer I know directly or indirectly through Declan Burke. So I'd say friends --the right ones-- are the most important source of information on books for me.

November 30, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Michael Dibdin's Venetian cop, Aurelio Zen.

November 30, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Zen as a personal favorite, that is.

Perilously close to over the top is Ian Rankin's cop, John Rebus.

November 30, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

And as much as I love Arnaldur's novels, the meaning in Icelandic of the name of his cop, Erlender, is kinda obvious, even a bit corny.

December 01, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Aurelio Zen works in at least four ways, which makes him a world-beater in this category.

1) Zen is an honorable old Venetian name, which connects the detective to his home

town, perhaps an especially useful counterbalance for a detective whose cases take him all over Italy. He is rooted, if only by his name, in a place.

The name invokes both 2) Marcus Aurelius (Marco Aurelio) and 3) Zen Buddhism -- tantalizing intellectual predecessors for a prober of mysteries. And I can't believe that Dibdin, the cleverest of crime writers, did not intend a bit of fun by giving his protagonist 4) a name that runs from A to Z.

December 01, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Rankin has never been a favorite of mine, so the extra meaning behind Rebus' name had not occurred to me until I read your comment. But it makes a fine addition to this list.

I'm not sure I knew that Erlendur meant foreigner or stranger until after I'd read Arnaldur's books and heard him talk about Iceland and its recent history. So the character's name fit when I learned when it meant. Had I known its meaning before I read the books, I might have rolled my eyes.

December 01, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

George Smiley (his first name suggests the down-to-earth worker, but does he ever smile?) and Dick Tracy (his second name suggests someone who readily detects traces [clues] of crimes, but his first name--well, 'nuff said).

December 01, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Why, an ironic comment on that late-adopted, possibly conflated saint or bishop invoked as a protector of merchant ships and later as a symbol of England!!! Very good.

December 01, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And Dick Tracy's name has been lurking under my nose for years without my ever having given it a second a thought. Some dick I am.

December 01, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

By chance, I opened randomly to Michael Connelly's essay in Books to Die For on The Little Sister, which I haven't read. But Marlowe is hired by Orfamay Quest to find her missing brother. That's a hit you over the head with a loy kind of name, but because it's Chandler, I'm guessing it probably works.

December 01, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Now, that's a good name. It's memorable without being ridiculous, I think, the odd first name perhaps distracting the reader from attaching excessive significance to the surname. I don't remember from the novel whether to suspect Chandler might have intended any invocation, jocular or otherwise, of Orpheus.

December 01, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Chandler was good with names. Think of the rugged old general in The Big Sleep, hanging on in the face of all that life has thrown his way, and the name Sternwood may seem evocative, And talk about rugged, no-nonsense first names: His was "Guy."

December 01, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

I'm going to guess the Orpheus overtone was deliberate, although I guess it could also be an allusion to orphan. I'd have to read the book.

December 01, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Chandler is an interesting case when it comes to character names because his novels sometimes reused great chunks of material from his earlier stories. So, for example, the story "“Killer in the Rain” includes the smut bookstore, the blackmail, the shooting on Laverne Terrace, the car plunging off the pier, and the wayward daughter Carmen that we all know from The Big Sleep.

But in the story, her name is Carmen Dravec, and her father is a self-made man named Anton Dravec. So, when Chandler reused the situation in the novel, it's fair to wonder why he named Carmen's father Guy Sternwood.

December 01, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Finally, I don't mean to imply that Chandler or any other author in this discussion attached great thematic weight to character names, or that any of those names would make fit material for a dissertation. The authors may merely have intended that names as amusing comments.

December 01, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

Everything makes fit material for a dissertation, apparently.

I see that Dravec is an anagram for craved, but I don't know the story well enough to know whether this means anything.

December 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Then there’s the following, from my interview with Jo Nesbø in 2010. The Hairy Hole confusion is a reminder of all sorts of additional overtones, intentional or otherwise, that can come into play when one crosses linguistic boundaries. The English word hole as a name for a fictional detective who’s always getting into trouble and booted off the police force might evoke the expression “in the hole.” The association disappears when one reflects that the name is pronounced something like HEU-leh in Norwegian:

Detectives Beyond Borders: Can you talk a little about why you chose the name Harry for your protagonist?

Jo Nesbø: It's like the most corny name you can think of. It's even an expression in Norwegian, to be Harry. It's like the cliché of a redneck.

In the Seventies what we meant with Harry was someone who dressed like Elvis. It was someone from the rural areas coming to the city not knowing how to dress. That was why I wanted the name. `How can you call somebody Harry?' It's not a funny name, but it's an uncomfortable name. It's a normal name in one way, but on the other hand, a guy living in Oslo named Harry, it gives the character character.

There was an English musician born in Norway that suggested the name really was `Hairy Hole,' that I was playing with that. I told him no, I wasn't. I really laughed hard when he suggested that. No, I didn't think about that, but I wish I had, you know.

December 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dravec/Craved is moving into territory where even I would hesitate to tread. Anton Dravec was a tough, self-made man who had worked hard, made, lost, and made fortunes, and was highly emotional over the fate of his daughter. I remember thinking that it would have been interesting to see the character developed more fully in a novel.

December 02, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Belated thought: Consider one of my favorite detectives, Colin Dexter's Morse, the great decoder of cryptic clues in Oxford murders.

December 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The character's first name is a good one for a detective as well.

December 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or for the protagonist of just about any fiction, for that matter.

December 10, 2012  

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