The Man with No Name: The Appeal of a Character without an Identity

Photo by Nicholas Kwok on Unsplash

Humans are naturally inquisitive. We have had to be in order to survive and to evolve into the intelligent, technologically advanced beings we have become today. Not only do we wonder Why? but we also strive to know What? and Who? Curiosity may have killed the cat but that doesn’t stop us – a stranger in our midst is challenged, an interloper may be driven out. We are comfortable with what we know and understand, and disturbed by what we don’t.

Hence when someone turns up with no name, either in reality or in a work of fiction, we cannot help but be intrigued.

Part of the ongoing fascination with Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns of the 1960s is that the Clint Eastwood-played main character in “A Fistful of Dollars,” “For a Few Dollars More,” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” has no name. Although occasionally referred to in the movies with a variety of single-word nicknames, the poncho-wearing mule-riding cheroot-chewing gun-slinging bounty hunter has become officially accepted as the Man with No Name and has his own entries in both IMDb and Wikipedia. Indeed, the three films together are now universally known as the Man with No Name Trilogy.

So when I decided to include a character with no name in my latest book, Pulse, there was a vast heritage I had to consider, although the circumstances are somewhat different. In my story the nameless man arrives at the hospital emergency department unconscious and, despite the doctors’ best efforts, he subsequently dies. But he has no identification on him and no one claims his body. My protagonist, emergency physician Dr. Chris Rankin, becomes more than professionally interested; obsessed would be a more appropriate word.

The man dies from a cocaine drug overdose but, in a pinstripe suit, white shirt, and polished black brogues, he doesn’t look like a normal drug taker. Who was he? Why did he die? Where did he come from? And, of course, was it accidental, suicide or murder?

I was inspired to write about a nameless dead man by a true story that unfolded during the period I was working on the novel.

In December 2015, a man walked into a pub in the village of Greenfield near Oldham, England, and asked for the way to the “top of the mountain,” the 1500-foot Indian’s Head peak on nearby Saddleworth Moor. He was wearing just a thin shirt, pants, and a lightweight raincoat. On his feet were slip-on shoes, hardly suitable for moorland hiking in a British mid-winter.

His lifeless body was found the following morning, lying near a secluded path in what looked like a sleeping position on his back with his hands crossed over his chest. Toxicology tests later proved that he had died from ingesting a large dose of strychnine, a highly toxic alkaloid more usually employed as a pesticide or rat poison. He had no wallet, no phone nor any form of identification, just a used train ticket and a little money, and, despite a nationwide TV and newspaper appeal by the police, no one came forward to identify him.

Part of the intrigue stemmed from the knowledge that Saddleworth Moor itself has a grisly past. Not only did an airliner crash in 1949 close to where the man was found, killing twenty-four passengers and crew, but the Moor had also been used as the burial site for the child victims of lovers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, Britain’s most notorious serial killers.

After a yearlong investigation by police spanning several continents, the Man on the Moor was finally identified as one David Lytton, formerly know as David Lautenberg, and an open verdict was recorded at his inquest in March 2017 – by which time I had finished writing the novel.

And who was my nameless man in Pulse? And why did he die?

Read the book to find out.

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New Tolkien Series Could Shatter Budget Records

Having acquired the (extremely expensive) rights to re-adapt The Lord of the Rings, Amazon Studios has doubled down with a production budget of a quarter billion dollars – this means the series is on track to become the most expensive TV series ever made. There is speculation that it will serve as a launchpad for varous spin-offs and prequels, and with “Game of Thrones” finally off the scene, fantasy fans will be drawn to this glittery new object like moths to a flame. Anything that costs that much has got to be worth watching… right?

What to Read Next if You Loved ‘A Wrinkle in Time’

Reese Witherspoon, Oprah Winfrey, and Mindy Kaling in A Wrinkle in Time © Walt Disney Pictures (2018)

A Wrinkle in Time is an enduring classic of children/young adult literature. Its fantastical elements and playful language make it a delight for younger readers while its more complex ruminations on religion and philosophical quandaries leave adults with plenty to ponder. Following its initial publication in 1962, A Wrinkle in Time took home a slew of awards including the Newberry Medal and positioned Madeleine L’Engle as one of the most significant and thought-provoking children’s authors of her time. The novel, and its sequels, remain an oft-challenged and beloved classroom fixture. With Disney’s recent blockbuster, Oprah-backed adaptation – helmed by Ava Duvernay – our thoughts have once turned to Madeline L’Engle’s miraculous world.  Whether you’re looking for something to whet your appetite before catching the film or something to sate your thirst for more after the end credits roll, the books below should do the job.

The cover of the book A Wrinkle in Time QuintetA Wrinkle in Time Quintet

Madeleine L’Engle

Whether you’re picking it up for the first time or revisiting the well-read classic, there’s nothing quite exploring Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet as an adult. It should come as no surprise that the series, like all great literature, ages incredibly well. The adventures of Meg and Charles Wallace Murray, their friend Calvin O’Keefe, and eventually the Murray and O’Keefe families are as enchanting and thought-provoking today as on their initial publication.

 

The cover of the book The Magicians TrilogyThe Magicians Trilogy

Lev Grossman

This bestselling trilogy and basis for the hit Syfy show is a must-read. Blurring the lines between reality and fiction, The Magicians Trilogy centers around Quentin Coldwater – a brilliant but misanthropic high school student fascinated by a series of children’s fantasy novels set in the magical land of Fillory. Imagine Quentin’s surprise when he’s accepted to an elite, secret college of magic and discovers that Fillory may actually exist. It is an adventure that is equal parts fantastical and deeply human.

 

The cover of the book Swamplandia!Swamplandia!

Karen Russell

While not technically set in a magical or alternate realm, the Florida Everglades of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! feel no less fantastical. The novel follows Ava Bigtree, a precocious young girl who has spent her entire life in her family’s gator wrestling theme park, Swamplandia. When a series of mishaps and misfortunes sends her family spiraling into chaos, Ava sets out into the everglades to make things right in this brilliantly imagined debut from Karen Russell.

 

The cover of the book The TroupeThe Troupe

Robert Jackson Bennett

What do you get when you mix in a traveling vaudeville troupe, a young man searching out his father, a bit of Lovecraftian Cosmicism, and a dose of weird fiction? The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett. While Bennett is best known for the Divine Cities trilogy, his earlier stuff is just as good, and this one might just be my favorite. Like A Wrinkle in Time, it centers around a child’s search for their parent, and The Troupe is home to a mesmerizing and bizarre cast of characters set against a turn-of-the-century vaudevillian backdrop teeming with magic and suspense.

 

The cover of the book The TalismanThe Talisman

Stephen King and Peter Straub

The Talisman and its sequel Black House, a collaboration between two of the most influential horror writers of their generation, span the life of Jack Sawyer. As a boy in The Talisman, Jack traveled to a parallel universe called “the territories” to save his mother from an agonizing death. Twenty years later, during the events of Black House, Jack is a retired homicide detective with no memory of his time in the territories until a series of gruesome murders pulls him inexplicably toward the past he’d long ago forgotten.

 

The cover of the book All the Birds in the SkyAll the Birds in the Sky

Charlie Jane Anders

This 2017 Nebula Award winner and Hugo finalist is a bizarre, humorous, and ultimately poignant tale of the clash of magic and science with the world’s end looming. It’s built around the conflict between an ancient order of witches and a hipster tech startup – each battling to prevent the world from tearing itself apart. At its center is the love story of Patricia, a brilliant witch, and Laurence, a engineering genius. It’s all told against the backdrop of San Francisco and a world well on its way to a crisis. It’s precisely as quirky and strange as it sounds, and Charlie Jane Anders holds it all together.

 

The cover of the book The HikeThe Hike

Drew Magary

Like The Troupe, this one may not seem like an obvious choice. It’s a truly bizarre adventure that pulls from classic folk tales and video games to create decidedly weird, and oft-hilarious, concoction. It centers on a suburban family man who takes a hike in rural Pennsylvania and soon stumbles into an unsettling and dangerous world. It’s weird fiction. It’s an otherworldly adventure with an engaging cast of characters. It’s a deconstruction of the fairy tale form. It’s also utterly entertaining.

 

The cover of the book Birthright, Vol. 1: HomecomingBirthright, Vol. 1: Homecoming

Joshua Williamson

A child being whisked away to become the savior of a fantasy world is a common trope, but what happens to the family the child leaves behind? More importantly, what happens when the story ends? These questions are the bedrock of Joshua Williamson’s Birthright series. The Rhodes family is shattered when their young son mysteriously goes missing. A year later, a full grown sword-wielding man appears, claiming to be the young son they lost. Could that possibly be the case?

 

The cover of the book When You Reach MeWhen You Reach Me

Rebecca Stead

This Newberry Medal winner wears its inspiration firmly on its sleeve. Rebecca Stead has made no secret that A Wrinkle in Time was her inspiration for When You Reach Me; in fact, it is the protagonist’s favorite book. The story follows sixth grader Miranda, who begins receiving mysterious notes that seem to be able to predict the future. With each one, she is pulled into a deeper and seemingly more dangerous mystery. Much like A Wrinkle in Time, When You Reach Me is an intricately woven and thought-provoking tale that will to readers of all ages and linger long after the final page.

“Lets call him… Ishmael.”

“What kind of a name is Ishmael? No, we’ll name him something cool… like Herman!”*

Image result for herman melvilleImage result for moby dickHappy birthday, Mr. Melville!

Celebrate the author of one of the most famous, most adapted, most parodied stories of all time, Moby Dick. While not his first or only creations, the monstrous white whale and obsessed captain hunting it have become cultural icons and have greatly surpassed contemporary expectations.

The book was initially a bit of a flop and didn’t sell well until after Herman Melville’s death. So, pick up a copy of the book, or a graphic novel or film adaptation, or at least the Cliffs Notes version today, and show your support and appreciation. I bet the Moline Library could help you find something.

*While I doubt that Herman Melville’s parents had this conversation while looking upon their baby boy for the first time, isn’t it fun to pretend?

An Aging Philip Marlowe Returns In ‘Only To Sleep’

Only to SleepHow odd it is to step into another writer’s shoes. To pull on the suit of his most famous character and dance around in it for a little while. You gotta have a reason to do something like that. You’ve gotta be, for lack of a better word, invested.

Lawrence Osborne has done some amazing things with words. He’s made a hard, sharp name for himself doing his own thing — telling morally gray and existentially terrifying tales about men and women loose in the world’s far places, and merciless, personal nonfiction. But with Only To Sleep he has borrowed the style of Raymond Chandler and the body of Philip Marlowe. “A perilous thing,” he says of such literary necromancy in his author’s note. And he’s right.

You read the first five pages of Only To Sleep, the first ten maybe, and, if you’re a Chandler fan (which I am, though not as obsessive as some), you’ll be pissed. Not hugely, but a little. You can see, in the arrangements of commas, the pauses, the clipped and bittersweet rhythm of the ink on the page, someone doing a pretty good Chandler impersonation.

But you can see the impersonation, and that’s the problem. Again, if you’re annoying like me and pedantic like me, and overly (one might say professionally) critical like me, there are these little barbs of tempo that catch at the skin around your eyes or the back of your throat and jerk you out of the pretty world being assembled.

But then the first chapter closes. Old Marlowe (in his 70’s now, retired, living slow and blankly and alone in a house on a beach in Mexico) has gotten his call to adventure in the shape of two insurance men who want him to look into a mysterious death. And Osborne walks off with a paragraph that might be one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in a year. “It came from out in the tempest, even from the lights of the fishing boats a mile out at sea,” he writes.

You can be called to a last effort, a final heroic statement, because I doubt you call  yourself to leave comforts and certainties for an open road. But the call is inside your own head. It’s a sad summons from the depths of your own wasted past. You could call it the imperative to go out with full-tilt trumpets and gunshots instead of the quietly desperate sound of a hospital ventilator. Victory instead of defeat. You know that it will be the last time you ride out of the gates fully armed and that makes you more curious than you have ever been.

Never mind a year. That is up there among the most beautiful paragraphs on record. Doubly so because it is the moment where Only To Sleep stops being “a Philip Marlowe novel” (as it says right on the cover) and starts being a Lawrence Osborne novel that just happens to feature Philip Marlowe.

That paragraph is both Chandleresque to its bones (the odd constructions, the ping-ponging of near-stream-of-consciousness, the mythic, sad framing) and pure Osborne. It is the moment where he stops pretending and just lets it rip.

Osborne gets Chandler’s belief in Marlowe as a knight-errant (again, read the author’s note). He gets the dreaminess that defined the best of Marlowe’s moments — solutions to cases that never solved anything; long, drifty middles where no one (and least of all Marlowe) understood anything that was happening save breathing, bourbon and the weather. He melds his own fascination with rich, white dimwits abroad and Chandler’s championing of Everyman doggedness in a perfect cocktail, neat, no ice. And that page 10 paragraph? It isn’t the last example of wild, extravagant, counterpunching beauty: “I had sat at a window like this in 1971 and watched the sugar trucks go by and wondered why my hands looked so old before their time.”

The story is simple in the way that all gumshoe novels ought to be. A rich white guy dies while swimming in Mexico. His insurance policy pays out a couple million to his too-pretty young wife. Two men in dark suits, suspicious of such costly coincidence, ask Marlowe to take a look. He does. End of book.

It’s the kind of book where, when you read it, it turns the world to black and white for a half-hour afterward. It leaves you with the taste of rum and blood in your mouth. It hangs with you like a scar.

Like all great gumshoe novels, there are cavernous depths there that only look shallow from the surface. It is simple only for those who bring nothing with them when they open the cover. Only To Sleep is a story about age and regret and murder. About the American Dream. The Mexican Dream. About never being able to let go of the past, and how little the present cares for your sad nostalgia. There are, I would wager, not more than a hundred sentences in this thing that mean only what they say. And Osborne’s sentences (like Chandler’s sentences) are often brutally short. It’s the kind of book where, when you read it, it turns the world to black and white for a half-hour afterward. It leaves you with the taste of rum and blood in your mouth. It hangs with you like a scar.

Most important, it gives Philip Marlowe a sunset to walk off into. Or limp off into, leaning on his sword cane, thinking slow, deep thoughts as he goes. And like the best Chandler twists, that is one thing that maybe no one saw coming.

 

By JASON SHEEHAN, July 26, 2018, first appearing on Books : NPR

Editor’s Note:

Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.