David Freed

What’s in a Name

What’s in a name?

Plenty, if you’re a storyteller and you aspire to set your book’s protagonist apart in the world of crime fiction.

Myriad considerations factor into how a writer goes about assigning their hero a name. Sometimes it’s a simple function of the way the name sounds, how it rolls off the tongue. Michael Connolly, with whom I had the pleasure of sharing several bylines when we covered law enforcement together as reporters at the Los Angeles Times, certainly had musicality in mind when he named his LAPD detective Harry Bosch. Michael also chose Bosch’s name in tribute to the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, whose work Michael admired for its complexity and depth, much like Michael’s and Bosch’s own work.

A writer often will come up with a name that subtly telegraphs to the reader something relevant regarding the character’s psychological makeup or motivation. Consider Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, an ex-military policeman always on the move, always searching, always reaching for the next mystery to solve. Dashiell Hammett’s tough guy PI Sam Spade is an appropriately named digger with a wit as sharp as a shovel blade and a moral code to match. The name that author Janet Evanovich assigned to her bounty hunter protagonist, Stephanie Plum, conveys Stephanie’s bouncy disposition and the occasional comedic conundrums in which she finds herself.

Some names afford the reader clues about the protagonist’s ethnic or cultural heritage (Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski; Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot). Other names are crafted purposely to remain mysterious, like Spencer, Robert B. Parker’s iconic ex-Boston cop-turned-private eye. Over 40 Spencer novels, beginning in 1973, with the release of Parker’s “The Godwulf Manuscript,” to the debut in 2011 of his “Sixkill,” not once did Parker reveal Spencer’s first name. The deliberate omission added to Spencer’s enigmatic nature and encouraged readers to connect the dots as to what made Spencer tick beyond his hard-boiled persona.

And then, alas, there are authors like me who, truth be told, don’t put a ton of deep thought into deciding what to call our heroes.

My protagonist for those of you unfamiliar with him is Cordell Logan, a wisecracking civilian flight instructor and would-be Buddhist who struggles to come to terms with his violent past. Logan used to fly Air Force A-10 Warthogs. That was before he was grounded by an old college football injury and transferred to a since-disbanded, Tier One Ultra counterterrorist team code-named “Alpha,”where he went around the world killing bad guys who, in the name of national security, needed killing.

I will admit to having employed some fairly obscure reasons in cooking up his name.

Back in the early 1990’s, the University of Colorado football team had a quarterback named Kordell Stewart. The man was a total baller. He could throw and he could run and I seriously hated him, mainly because in his first start as a sophomore, he passed for 409 yards and scored four touchdowns to embarrass my alma mater, Colorado State University, in our big, annual, in-state rivalry game. Regardless, I still thought Kordell’s first name was unusual and straight-up cool. And so, one night, probably after enjoying a glass of wine or two, I changed the K to a C and stole it.

As for the Logan part of Cordell Logan, I found inspiration in Bill Logan, a legendary, long-time sports columnist who worked at the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News in Denver, where I spent three years as a reporter early in my journalism career. Bill’s desk sat opposite mine in the city room, though he was rarely there. His beat was the great outdoors add he got paid–if you can believe it–to drive all over the Rocky Mountain West in a station wagon packed with firearms and fly-fishing gear. Then he would write about all the many trout he caught and various animals he shot. As the legend goes, Bill had been a total stud in World War II, wounded at Omaha Beach on D-Day. “Wild Bill,” is what the other old-timers at the paper, all vets themselves, called him in admiration. I don’t recall him ever not having a lighted cigarette clenched in his always-grinning, sun-weather face. He was always quick with a witty quip and utterly unflappable. Nothing ever seemed to ruffle the man. If you survived the horrors of D-Day, I suppose everything else after that is gravy.

Anyway, I was into duck hunting back then (one of my big regrets; I quit long ago), and Bill Logan offered to sell me one of his shotguns. We walked out of the newspaper office and down to his station wagon, from which he assembled a pump-action, 12-gauge Remington. Mind you, this was on a sunny weekday morning across from the US Mint and directly around the corner from Denver police headquarters. Neither of us, however, was thinking about that. After he handed it to me, I checked to make sure the gun wasn’t loaded, pressed the stock to my cheek, racked a simulated round, sighted down the barrel, and dry-fired the weapon. The asking price, however, was a bit steep. I told Logan I’d think about it.

“No problem,” he said, with that grin and ever-present cigarette between his teeth. But when he went to break down the shotgun before returning it to the back of his  station wagon, the barrel, which would normally twist free from the receiver, somehow became stuck. He twisted and tugged, but the damn thing wouldn’t budge. Then I tried. No luck.

“You get on one end and I’ll get on the other,” Logan commanded me like he was directing troops on the beach. “If we both pull, it should come loose.”

“Yessir.”

So there were, in the middle of busy downtown Denver, with Logan tugging on the business end of a 12-gauge shotgun and me tugging on the other end, when, suddenly, an unmarked cop car came thundering the wrong way down one-way Delaware Street. Tires screeched as the Crown Vic slid to a stop and two detectives jumped out, reaching for their holstered handguns. They were clearly convinced they were stopping some sort of assault in progress. Then one of them recognized Logan.

“Oh, it’s just you, Bill,” he said with a smile. “I read your column every day.”

The detectives suggested it might be a good idea if we forgot trying to break down the shotgun and just put it away. He apologized to the cops for their trouble. That cigarette grin never left Logan’s face as they drove on.

More than four decades later, I can say with certainty that I wasn’t thinking at the time, “Someday, I’m gonna be a mystery writer and I’m gonna name my protagonist after Kordell Stewart and Bill Logan, but that protagonist will bear  no resemblance to either one.” Yet in the vapor that is inspiration, the notion must’ve somehow found root.

Bill passed away many years ago. So did the wonderful newspaper we both work for. I think of him every time I type his name. 

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