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This month's theme: Mysteries
 
What's in a Name?

by

Jay Speyerer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the world of whodunnits, there's sometimes a bit of mystery and what-if attached to the origins of famous fictional names. To wit:

Sherlock Holmes is arguably the most famous of the fictional detectives with the most famous address, 221B Baker Street. Terrifyingly, he was almost named Sherrinford Hope, but Arthur Conan Doyle's wife hated the idea. Rumors were later floated that Sherrinford was Sherlock's other brother – other than Mycroft, that is – but he never appears in any of Doyle's stories.

Much has been made of the fact that Holmes has been updated to modern times, such as Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in Sherlock, a joint BBC / American production, and Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu in CBS's Elementary. But let's not forget that Doyle set his original stories in his own time, so to him and his readers, they were contemporary stories and not period pieces.

We must also remember the movie world's go-to Holmes of the 1940s, Basil Rathbone. He and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson made a whopping 14 Sherlock Holmes movies, but only the first two were set in Victorian times. The other 12 were produced cheaply as B movies and were set during the contemporary era of World War II, where the heroes spent their time fighting Nazis instead of Jack the Ripper. (Period films are more expensive to produce.)

In the modern iterations, Holmes and Watson are called by their first names, whereas the more formal and distant last names were used in earlier versions.

Without Sherlock Holmes, we probably wouldn't have had the TV series House, MD, which ran on Fox for eight seasons beginning in 2004. Producers acknowledge that Dr. Gregory House was patterned after Holmes. (House – Holmes. Get it?) The doctor is a brilliant diagnostician and a sarcastic misanthrope, seeing crucial symptoms (clues) that everyone else misses and alienating co-workers along the way. His friend and confidant is Dr. Wilson, and in later seasons, House's address is 221, apartment B. To my knowledge, no street name was ever given. *

Nick Charles was the detective in Dashiell Hammett's novel, The Thin Man. A former detective, he solved crimes with the aid of his brilliant wife, Nora. But Nick wasn't the thin man of the title. That honor fell to a missing person in the story, a Mr. Wynant. Hammett never wrote a sequel, but the characters lived on. A series of six movies were made starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, and considering that every title had a reference to the "thin man," it was obvious that the producers were fine with the audience assuming it referred to Nick. The same goes for the 1957 NBC TV series starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk, which ran for two seasons.

The Continental Op was a another detective created by Hammett. He was an operative for the Continental Detective Agency, and neither his first or last name was ever revealed in any of the 36 short stories in which he appeared.

Robert B. Parker's Boston PI, Spenser, first appeared in 1973 in The Godwulf Manuscript. We never learned his first name, and Parker went through some tricky narrative gymnastics to avoid having to use it. One example went something like this:

I arrived for my appointment and stepped up to the receptionist's desk. She said, "May I have your full name please?" I told her.

In an interview, Parker said that his original intention was to name the character David, after his son. But then he and his wife, Joan, had another boy, and Parker didn't want to play favorites. Spenser is the most literate and capable private eye you'll ever meet. He quotes poetry, cooks like a gourmet chef, and can beat up almost anyone because he lifts weights and is a former boxer.

Another writer who likes to play footsie with his detective's first name is Loren Estleman. A prolific writer, he's widely known for the popular Amos Walker detective series and for a raft of westerns and other genres. He also created the film historian/ detective, Valentino. After five novels and a short story, we still don't know his first name. Don't hold your breath.

Travis McGee was a self-described "salvage consultant" created by John D. MacDonald. His fee was half of whatever he recovered for his client. He reasoned that half of something was better than all of nothing, and his clients went along with it. (They pretty much had to or there would have been no story.) Every title contained a color, the first one being The Deep Blue Goodbye, published in April of 1964. The author had a close call before publication of the first novel: His character was going to be named Dallas McGee, but then the Kennedy assassination happened. MacDonald's twenty-first and final McGee novel, The Lonely Silver Rain, came out in 1984. MacDonald passed away two years later.

A first-person philosopher, McGee indulged in many asides that commented on modern life. Today, they come off as a bit dated. Case in point: McGee opened his beer cans by turning them over and using a church key to avoid the pull tab. Can't do that anymore; no lip on the bottom rim. McGee was tall and tough and always surmounted the adversities of the plots, but the bad guys were always so formidable that, at the end of most of the books, he was a bruised and bloody mess.

Less a detective and more of a masked crime fighter, the Green Hornet had his own radio show starting in 1936. The vigilante's real name is Britt Reid, and if that sounds familiar, he's the son of Dan Reid, who was the nephew of the original masked good guy, John Reid, a.k.a. the Lone Ranger.

The Green Hornet appeared on radio, in the movies, and on TV in the 1960s. The movie serials of the 1940s are odd to watch because of a couple of tricks the producers decided to play with the sound. GH's technically advanced car, the Black Beauty, was given an engine sound effect that sounded like buzzing bees. Not only was it goofy and hilarious, good luck sneaking up on the bad guys. And when Gordon Jones, the actor playing Britt Reid, was on screen, the actor's real voice was used. But as soon as the mask was on, which covered the entire face, another actor's deeper voice was dubbed in.

I'm not saying these examples are complete. If you can think of any sleuths I missed, please let me know.

*(Correction: In a recent re-run, House had to prove his identity. A close-up of his driver's license showed that his street address was indeed Baker Street. ~J.S.)

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One of the publications Jay Speyerer has appeared in is Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. His parents almost named him Philo Vance.

 

 

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