Saturday, December 15, 2018

Guest Post - Jean Briggs

Aline here.  I'm delighted this week to introduce you to my friend Jean Briggs.  She is clever and witty and as an English teacher amused her pupils with spoof murder mystery plays with titles like A is for Arsenic, B is for Bludgeon.    But when she decided to write a crime novel it was her passion for Charles Dickens that came to the fore.  He was interested in crimes and police work, so it needed only a small leap of the imagination to cast him as the sleuth in her 'Dickens and Jones' mysteries. For the benefit of our transatlantic readers, Dickins and Jones was the name of a famous London department store, like Bergdorf Goodman, which gives the hint that her tongue-in-cheek style hasn't been totally abandoned!

What’s in a name? 

Graveyards; obituary notices, and births and marriages; the British Newspaper Archive; the Bible; The Oxford Dictionary of English Surnames – these are some of the places from where I steal the names of my characters. Graveyards, though somewhat melancholy, are a very useful resource for nineteenth century names – names you’ve often not heard before. I came across the Reverend Moister in a churchyard near me. The Resurrection Woman – he sprang to life as vividly as anything from Charles Dickens. He would be damp about the hands, naturally, moist about the brow, and oystery about the eyes – something of the hypocrite about him, I thought, stuffing the funeral baked meats into his crocodile mouth while wiping away the tears for the murdered man – or woman.
            Dickens made up some of his names. He clearly enjoyed the sounds as well as the moral connotations of the words. Who can forget Pumblechook, Wopsle, Sweedlepipes, Pecksniff , Squeers? And Scrooge, of course, with its connotations of screw and scrouge, the latter an archaic word for squeeze. Dickens borrowed names, too, from graveyards, streets, shop fronts and people he knew. He saw the name Pickwick on a coach. I borrowed Vholes from him, imagining a moment in one of my murder mysteries when Dickens, disguised as a lawyer, suddenly needs a name. Vholes is a lawyer from Bleak House – his name suits his creeping character. Dickens tells his policeman partner, Superintendent Jones, that he saw the name on a passing cart – thus fiction grows out of fact.
            So often, the names of Dickens’s characters fit their personalities. In naming my characters, there is some alchemy at work, especially for the good and the bad. Sometimes names just come – perhaps unknowingly known, but suddenly apposite.
            Brim is the surname of two innocent children, Tom and Eleanor. It seemed right: short and suggestive of delight. Tilly Moon is an albino child with strange, silvery hair – scorned by the neighbours, and not long for this world. Robin Hart, a missing boy, is ‘bonny sweet Robin’ of Ophelia’s song. His mother drowns. I found the name Drown in a newspaper and gave it to Edward Drown so that Dickens could call him ‘Drown-Ed.’ Dickens loved puns. Dickens befriends a street urchin in my first book, a ragged sort of lad, small for his age. He became Scrap.
            I like a bit of comedy, too – murder’s a grim business. Betty Chew is the toothless charwoman to Mrs Ginger, mistress of a very bad man. Maggie Brine keeps a pub and dilutes her gin with vitriol – it did happen. Georgie Taylor was an infamous dog thief in 1850s London. I gave him a wife – Charity – the meanest woman alive. I found the name Meteyard in one of Dickens’s letters. Then I found it again in F. Tennyson Jesse’s book Murder and Its Motives – Mrs Meatyard, baby murderer. I needed a butcher. I wanted a big one so Sampson Meteyard came along. His partner, Slaughter, breaks down, leaves the business, and becomes a vegetarian – not a murderer.
            The naming of murderers is a tricky business. Surely Drood with his stony name, Jasper, is the murderer of Edwin. Dickens liked stony names: Bradley Headstone has murder in his heart, and Mr Murdstone is as much a murderer as if he had killed David Copperfield’s mother with his bare hands. Cruelty can kill.
            But, the detective story writer does not want to give away too much too soon. Death – from Middle English ‘deeth’ would be tempting were it not one of the aristocratic names of Lord Peter Wimsey, and too obvious, I think. This is why I choose the most glaringly criminal names for minor villains. Blackledge sets your teeth on edge; I’ve Blackborn and Blackbone in reserve – they sound like pirates. Jonas Finger is a bad lot, a thief and a pimp. Jonas, I stole from Dickens and I found Finger in the dictionary of surnames. It was recorded as early as 1219 in the York Assize Rolls. Fikey Chubb is a receiver of stolen goods – Fikey appears in one of Dickens’s detective anecdotes from his periodical Household Words. Chubb – I was thinking of locks and safes. The Chubb Company dates from the early nineteenth century. Betty Tode is a prison wardress. The name is probably linked to Todd which derives from the Middle English word ‘Tod’, meaning fox, but I was thinking of something more poisonous. And there’s Mrs Brimstone, baby farmer – I thought I’d made it up, influenced by Mrs Squeers, but it exits in Brimstone Hill in Essex. Her unprepossessing associate is Bertha Raspin, known as Mother Hubbard because of the instruments she keeps in her cupboard. A nurse, she is not. Saturnino Betti is an Italian criminal who is known as Satan.
            Satan as the murderer – oh, no, no, no! Too much of a giveaway. The murderers must  hide behind very ordinary names, but I won’t be telling you those, of course.
A last thought: Deadman for the victim? No, I haven’t made it up – seventeenth century tax records for Suffolk!


Rick Blechta said...

Jean, very interesting post. Thanks so much for stopping by.

Now I'm going to have to look for your books. They sound fascinating!

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