Home >opinion >What’s in a name?

Perhaps the most curious event in detective fiction this year was the publication of The Cuckoo’s Calling, a debut novel by Robert Galbraith about the one-legged, down-on-his-luck private investigator Cormoran Strike and his bright female sidekick Robin Ellacott. It was praised by some of crime fiction’s greatest writers, such as Val McDermid, who wrote in The Guardian that this is “the kind of writing that reminds me why I love this genre".

As a first-timer Galbraith deserved the praise and the book sold all of 449 copies in the UK. Only, he was a she, and not a debutant, but the best-selling writer, J.K. Rowling. “Robert" came from Robert Kennedy, one of Rowling’s personal heroes, and “Galbraith" is the name of the influential economist J.K. Galbraith with whom Rowling shares initials.

When it became publicly known, Rowling was immediately accused of having done a cheap PR stunt for, within a few hours of the news leaking, The Cuckoo’s Calling shot up to No.1 on the online bookshops and sales increased by around 500,000%.

But according to reports it was her own trusted lawyer who, for some unfathomable reason, spilled the beans to his wife who, ignoring common sense, had to share the gossip with her best friend who couldn’t help herself either but tweeted it to the media.

Rowling’s explanation (on her Web page) was that it had been an attempt to liberate herself. “It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback from publishers and readers under a different name." The Latin epigram at the start of The Cuckoo’s Calling, “Unhappy is he whose fame makes his misfortunes famous", may be construed as a reference to the fact that The Casual Vacancy (2012), her first adult novel after the Harry Potter series, got very mixed reviews even if it sold over a million copies. The ruse worked to the extent that her new novel did get an impartial reception as a “debutant work".

The use of pseudonyms is not uncommon among crime novelists, but the norm is to pick a pen name to sell more, rather than less. For example, in the extremely racially-prejudiced US of the 1950s, Salvatore Lombino penned best-sellers under the name Ed McBain and practically invented the genre of police procedurals. His thrillers were filmed by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa, and the result is that the world remembers McBain, while very few recognize the name Lombino.

Other times the author may be well-known, such as the Man Booker Prize winner John Banville who writes detective novels as Benjamin Black. Here is a case of wanting to distinguish two literary projects from one another: Banville is the artistic writer, Black is the entertainer who writes cheap pulp.

When Stephen King started writing as Richard Bachman the primary reason was a practical one. The prolific King worried that publishing more than one novel per year might affect sales and make people think of him as a hack. Being Bachman allowed him to double his output.

Although pen names aren’t generally closely-guarded secrets, I know of a few such cases in Swedish crime fiction. The latest Swedish star Lars Kepler, whose The Nightmare just hit Indian bookshops, was initially thought to be a fresh talent. But when his debut was translated into over 30 languages, making it the perhaps most successful Swedish thriller since Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, the author was revealed to be not one—but two: the husband and wife team Alexander and Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril, both of them already celebrated as serious novelists in their own rights. They started the Kepler series as a hobby and for the first press meet with Kepler, a masked and anonymous decoy was used.

But there’s one Swedish crime writer, Bo Balderson, who has managed to keep his identity a secret for 45 years, a remarkable feat considering how much speculation and investigation there’s been into the pseudonym. Balderson published several best-sellers from the 1960s to 1990s, most of them with political undertones—the protagonist is a cabinet minister. The plots were so insightful about the inside workings of the Swedish government that people believed he must be a top politician, maybe even Olof Palme, the prime minister who was assassinated in 1986. But since Balderson went on writing after Palme’s death it seemed to rule out that possibility.

Balderson remains the most secret pen name of Swedish publishing, thereby making his persona one of the enduring mysteries of mystery fiction. However, there was no Twitter in 1968 when Balderson published his first book, but perhaps now some day soon somebody will tweet his real name to the media?

Zac O’Yeah is the author of Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan and Mr Majestic: The Tout of Bengaluru.

Also Read | Zac’s previous Lounge columns

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