Writing

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

Photo by Nicholas Kwok on Unsplash

Editor's Note:

Felix Francis assisted with the research and writing of many of his father Dick Francis’s novels, and is the coauthor of Dead HeatSilksEven Money, and Crossfire. He is also the author of GambleBloodlineRefusal, Damage, and most recently, Pulse. Here, he shares what it was like to create a nameless character, and explains why we’re drawn to what we don’t know.

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.