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