And They Made You Change Your Name*

Plenty of people change their names at some point in their lives, for any number of reasons. So, it’s no surprise that fictional characters do the same thing. And name changes are actually fairly important, since our names are so integral to our identities. Sometimes, name changes can interfere with a criminal investigation, as you can imagine. But even when that’s not the issue, a name change can prove to be an important part of character development, or even an important plot element.

For instance, there several novels and series (I’m thinking, for instance, of Colin Conway’s Cozy Up series and Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas) in which characters become a part of a witness protection program. Those characters are given new names, new identification documents and a new history for their own protection.  It doesn’t always work out that way, but that’s the idea behind these programs. And the struggle to forge and keep that new identity can be an interesting part of a plot.

For example, in Carol Carnac (AKA E.C.R. Lorac and Edith Caroline Rivett)’s Crossed Skis, Inspector Julian Rivers faces a difficult case. A man’s been murdered, and his body burned beyond recognition. At first, it’s believed that the dead man is a notorious thief called Gray. But when it’s established that the body belongs to someone else, Rivers comes to believe that perhaps Gray is the murderer. So, he begins a search for Gray’s whereabouts. He finds that it’s likely that Gray joined a party of skiers who took a trip to Austria, and he pursues that lead. One important problem is that Gray didn’t use his own name. Now, Rivers is going to have to find out which of the men in the skiing party is actually Gray, and it complicates the case.

Sometimes, name changes can even be related to a murder motive. There’s an Agatha Christie novel (no titles or sleuths here – I’m not giving away spoilers!) in which a character’s former name ends up being, in a way, the reason for a murder. Once the sleuth finds out the character’s original name, it’s a straightforward task to discover why a murder victim has been killed.

Sometimes, characters change their names because of their personal history (or their family history). For example, John Grisham’s The Chamber introduces Adam Hall, a Chicago attorney who travels to his firm’s Memphis office to litigate an important case. It seems that Sam Cayhall is about to be executed for a bombing murder related to his Ku Klux Klan activities. Hall will be defending Cayhall and trying to get that death sentence commuted to life in prison. As the story goes on, we learn that Adam was actually born Adam Cayhall. His father, Eddie, is Sam Cayhall’s son. It turns out that Eddie was so disgusted by his father’s KKK activities that he left for California and changed his surname to Hall. Adam is just as put off by the KKK and all that it stands for, and he’s kept the Hall surname. That background forms an interesting strand in this novel, as we see how the Cayhall name and identity impact those who carry it.

In Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Soul Murders, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn is getting ready for a party to celebrate her daughter Mieka’s engagement to Greg Harris. The Harris family is wealthy and connected, and the party is to be a lavish weekend affair. Joanne and her two sons, Angus and Peter, are preparing to go to the party when they get a surprise visit from Peter’s ex-girlfriend, Christy Sinclair. She’s still in love with Peter, and, as we find out, she wants to get back together with him. Before anyone really knows it, Christy has invited herself along to the festive weekend, and everyone duly arrives. Tragedy strikes, though, when Christy dies of what looks like suicide. It turns out, though, that she was murdered, and that her death is related to the death a young woman who was working for Mieka. Joanne is drawn into the investigation on a number of levels, and in the process of asking questions, she finds that Christy Sinclair was originally named Theresa Desjalier. That name, and Christy/Theresa’s background, are important clues to these murders.

J.P. Pomare’s Call Me Evie takes place in rural New Zealand, where Kate Bennet lives with a man she calls Bill. She knows that her name is really Kate, but Bill insists that she be called Evie. As the story goes along, we learn that Kate is originally from Melbourne, but she had to leave because of something terrible that she did. Kate/Evie has no memory of what, exactly, she did, but she knows that returning to Melbourne is out of the question. What’s more, she knows that if anyone finds out anything about her, it’ll mean disaster. So, she goes by the name of Evie, stays in the house as much as possible, and has very little contact with the local people. She relies on Bill to tell her what happened, but is he telling the truth? What, exactly, happened? Before long, Kate/Evie’s questioning, plus her natural desire to interact with other people, mean that the façade that Bill has carefully constructed for the two of them is about to come falling down.  And when it does, Kate/Evie will have to face the truth about what happened in Melbourne. And it’s interesting to see how the change of name impacts the story.

People change names for all sorts of different reasons. Name changes can be straightforward, but they can also complicate a lot of things – including murder investigations. These are just a few examples. Over to you.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s Candle in the Wind.

8 thoughts on “And They Made You Change Your Name*

  1. Thanks for an interesting post. As I read it I thought of a real crime fiction writer who changed her name for dramatic reasons. Juliet Marion Hulme and her best friend killed the friend’s mother when they were 15 in New Zealand. After 5 years in jail Hulme moved to England and became a flight attendant. She changed her name to Anne Perry and has had a very successful career as a mystery author.


    1. She did, indeed, Bill, and I’m glad you mentioned her. It’s a fascinating case of how a name change can be a really important aspect of finding a new life. I wonder what her life might have like had she kept her original name. Thanks for adding this to my post.


  2. I enjoy Conway’s Cozy Up series Margot and I must read more from it. I can dimly recall a Jess Walter book I read a decade ago – Citizen Vince which featured a guy in witness protection. I think a sub-plot was about him being unable to vote which annoyed him. Memories are really fuzzy. Maybe I’ll look it up and see if I still have a copy.


    1. The Cozy Up series is a good one, Col. I’ve not kept up with it, myself, although I’d like to do that. There are a few I’ve not gotten to yet. Thanks for mentioning Jess Walter, too. That’s an interesting point about people in witness protection being unable to vote. I hadn’t thought about that but it makes sense…


  3. As someone who finds it almost impossible to get used to name changes in friends, such as girlfriends when they marry or divorce, or even bloggers who change their profile name, I find name changing an interesting concept, and you’ve got some great examples here of different reasons people may have for doing it. Lorac used it again in Murder by Matchlight, when she showed how some people took advantage of the destruction and chaos during the Blitz to shed their old identity and take on someone else’s, either for nefarious purposes or sometimes to get away from something in their past.


    1. It is hard to keep up with real-life name changes, isn’t it, FictionFan? I’ve found that, too! It is interesting to see how people feel that they need to change their names, and how that impacts their identities. Thanks for mentioning the Lorac; wartime chaos wreaked havoc on record-keeping, so I’ll bet a lot of people changed identities. That comes up in a way in Caroline Overington’s Sisters of Mercy. Part of the plot has to do with parents who lost their child (she didn’t die – just went missing) after WW II, and a lot of it is because of what happened with records.

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