As Face of the Devil appears, we ask NJ Cooper about changing nomenclature… Choosing names for characters in a novel is an odd business. You need to have a name that suits the character, won’t put off readers, won’t cause confusion with any of the other players in the drama, and won’t put you at risk of a libel charge from any real person. Choosing a name for yourself is even harder.
When I started to write crime fiction at the same time as the historical novels I used to publish under my own name, I had great difficulty picking my first pseudonym. Eventually I turned to my elder sister (always a guru), who asked what kind of crime novels I was planning to write. When I said they were to be ‘frivolous and feminist’, she suggested Henrietta Cooper, Hencoop for short. Everyone involved liked the idea, until someone in my publishers’s sales department said it sounded like Henry Cooper’s younger sister and everyone would assume the novels were about boxing. Cooper was deemed acceptable, but a new first name was necessary. My agent suggested choosing the name of a favourite character from literature. As a teenager, I had fantasised about being Natasha Rostova from War & Peace, so I became Natasha.
It turned out to be a dodgy choice, as I discovered when I was being interviewed on live radio and my (male) questioner asked ‘why would any man pick up a novel by someone with a name as silly as Natasha?’ Later it seemed even dodgier when ‘Natasha’ became, in some societies, a euphemism for ‘prostitute’.
And so when I embarked on my current crime series, featuring forensic psychologist Karen Taylor (a name carefully chosen to be ageless, classless, unlikely to offend anyone, and not confined to any particular culture), it seemed a good idea to drop Natasha altogether. Much discussion followed about the middle initial, and I can’t now remember why we picked J, but when asked what it stands for I have found myself saying ‘Jezebel’. Great name, that! And it always makes me laugh.
Laughter is an essential antidote, I find, to the grimness inherent in any realistic crime novel. In Face of the Devil a young man diagnosed as schizophrenic is believed to have stabbed a childhood friend to death. The effects of the crime spread out, threatening to poison the lives of his family, and hers, and those of all kinds of people connected to them. Karen herself is deeply affected, as are the two men in her life: neurosurgeon Will Hawkins and rough-trade cop DCI Charlie Trench.
Over the years I have become liberated enough from my past to want to look into the darkness that once scared me so, to explore the suffering and damage that make people commit acts of emotional and physical violence, but I like to remind myself and my readers that life isn’t all dark, and that humour can be found in all kinds of places.
In Face of the Devil, which is full of sadness and horror, selfishness and malice, there is also a lot of warmth and, I think, bags of fun.
With each novel published, I have learned to be that bit more free in what I write. The journey has been very exciting, and as ideas for new instalments in the series bubble up, I can’t wait to embark on the next one.
Face of the Devil is published by Simon & Schuster