The Crime Readers' Association

‘The Art of Naming’ by Kim Hays

14th December 2022

War and Peace is supposed to contain 500 named characters, and readers find it hard to keep them straight. For one thing, each one is called by multiple names, and, for another, those names are Russian. I think most of us don’t get muddled when the woman we’ve met on page two as Elizabeth later becomes Lisa or Betsy, but we English-speakers expect a man named Nicholas to be nicknamed Nick, not Kolya.

When I started writing my debut mystery Pesticide, a police procedural set in Bern, I faced exactly this problem. There are fewer people in Switzerland than in New York City, yet the country has four official languages: German, French, Italian, and Latin-based Romansh. Swiss parents give their kids first names from all four Swiss languages and from English, not to mention Irish. (You’d be surprised how many boys named “Finn” live in Bern.) In addition, around a quarter of the people living in the country are not Swiss; their children have first names like Tena (Croatian), Murat (Turkish), and Priya (Tamil).

Pesticide’s heroine is a homicide detective called Giuliana Linder—her first name is Italian, but her nickname is Giule, which is Swiss-German. Renzo Donatelli, her police colleague, is a Swiss with Italian parents. So far, so good. Giuliana’s husband, however, is Ueli, which is not so good for English-speakers. Traditionally, Ueli is a nickname for Ulrich, but over the centuries it has become a name in its own right, like Tom instead of Thomas.  But Tom is one simple syllable, while “Ueli” is three, each distinctly pronounced: “oo” like in moon; “eh” like a Canadian finishing a sentence; and “li” as in Lee Child. U-e-li.

“Ueli” doesn’t sound strange to anyone who speaks Swiss-German, but some traditional Bernese nicknames are a bit odd even by Swiss standards. A Bernese Peter answers to Pesche, a man named Ernst (the German form of Ernest) is called Aschi, and Christian becomes Chrigu, with a “ch” like hawking up spit. Girls and women’s nicknames are less perplexing, usually taking an “e” or a “le”-sound at the end to diminutize them, so that a Susanne, for example, is often Susle.

Swiss friends, family, and work colleagues comfortably call each other by a surname (with or without a title), a first name, or a nickname, depending on the situation. As I was writing Pesticide, the first book in my Polizei Bern series, I worked hard to find a balance between authenticity and simplicity when it came to using names. In Sons and Brothers, the next book in the series (coming April 2023), I’ve included a foreword listing the nicknames of all the important characters, along with their official first and last names. Hopefully, that will put readers’ lingering confusion to rest.

Names are important; well-drawn protagonists even more so. It’s fun to spend time working out what a novel’s characters will be called—it means a lot more, however, to be told that those characters are effective. My fellow mystery writer James Ziskin (Bombay Monsoon 2022) wrote, “Giuliana Linder and Renzo Donatelli make for one of the sharpest, most compelling police duos you’ll ever read. Their conflicted attraction bristles with true emotional depth and poignancy as they lead a rich ensemble cast through the surprisingly nefarious world of organic politics.”

Thanks, Jim.

In Pesticide, a street party in Bern morphs into a brutal riot. Hours later, with the medieval downtown a shambles, a young man is found beaten to death with a policeman’s club. That same day, twenty miles away, an organic farmer turns up on his land, dead and drenched in pesticide. Swiss homicide detective Giuliana Linder and her younger colleague Renzo Donatelli start out on two separate cases, but it doesn’t take long before they find links between their victims. Working together on what has become a single, puzzling case, the two can no longer ignore their attraction to each other.

Pesticide, the first mystery in the Polizei Bern series, is published by Seventh Street Books. Pesticide was shortlisted for a 2020 CWA Debut Dagger. The next book in Hays’s series, also featuring police detectives Linder and Donatelli, is Sons and Brothers and will be out in April 2023.

You can read more about Kim Hays and her books here.

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