Naming names

Not far from where I used to work, and just yards from the tube station I’d arrive at every morning, there’s a row of what probably used to be town houses, back when that area of London boasted such things. Nowadays, the block’s mostly convenience stores and dingy restaurants, above which are what I suppose are offices: gazing upwards from the other side of the road you can glimpse strip lighting within, and filing cabinets, and calendars pinned to walls. A red and silver banner reading “Merry Xmas” was propped for years against a window, and to me this smacked of a particular desperation; of inmates with just enough will to put a decoration up, but not enough to take it back down. More than anything, that banner made me thank god I didn’t work there. The building looked like where you’d end up once you’d failed everywhere else.

Even so, its colonisation of my imagination was a slow-burn process, and by the time I’d realised I was going to use it as a setting – for a down-at-heel department of the British Intelligence Service; an “administrative oubliette” staffed by failures and burn-outs – my own London office had relocated. From a more upmarket postcode I plotted the doings of a crew of misfits, but stalled on what to call my protagonist (I was a long way off thinking him a hero). His surname was Cartwright, a sturdy enough English tag, but what preceded it gave me trouble, though I knew it had two syllables. I must have tried every name in common usage, but he remained semi-anonymous. My notes were full of stuff like: “Lamb summons
XXXX upstairs by banging on floor.”

I was on a train when “River” popped into my head. I’m still not sure why; it’s not your everyday name. But as soon as it was there, that became the point – not being standard, it trailed a backstory: “River” was a handle only a hippy parent could bestow. And given that your average flower-child doesn’t end up working for the Intelligence Services, there had to be more to his upbringing than that… Within moments of his name arriving, I had River Cartwright’s whole history: a grandfather who’d been a Cold War spook; a mother who rebelled and became a middle-class drop-out (all Chelsea squats and Laura Ashley dresses); an abandoned child brought up by his grandparents on a diet of
Kim and le Carré…

Character is plot. Once River was River he had sound reasons for becoming the person he is, and, exiled into the losers’ department – after a disastrous encounter with a rush-hour “suicide bomber” – he was always going to be champing at the bit; primed to go off-reservation, thus propelling himself and his fellow outcasts to the centre of the action.

As for the book itself, at this stage it was called
Dolphin Junction, a title chosen for its disconnect – Dolphin Junction, rather than the sandy promontory into a wine-dark sea its label suggests, is a junction box on a dismal stretch of railway track just outside Slough (possibly the point my train was passing when River’s name popped into my head). But sometime round about then I read Don Winslow’s The Winter of Frankie Machine, in which a gambler’s poverty is ascribed to his “fondness for slow horses”, and I thought: I’m having that. So ideas morphed and sandwiched: the decrepit office block became Slough House, to allow for its incumbents to be dubbed Slow Horses (when they’re not being called sly whores); and “Dolphin Junction” was shunted aside and coupled to a novella instead. When this won the 2009 Ellery Queen Readers’ Award, my own name morphed too; the story’s credited online, everywhere except EQMM itself, to “Mike Herron”, who isn’t me. Still, I’m not the only one with problems. Don Winslow shares his name with a pornographer – just check his Amazon page. To commiserate, and to thank him for the title, there’s a hat-tip in the novel’s first line, which echoes several of his own openings: “This is how River Cartwright slipped off the fast track and joined the slow horses.”

My firm moved yet again last year, and I’m regularly using that tube station once more. Slough House, whatever its real name may be, is still standing, and as of this morning – it’s April as I write – its Merry Xmas banner remains in place. I hope life there isn’t as desperate as I’ve imagined; and I can only assume it’s not as dangerous as the one my slow horses lead – not all of them make it to the finishing line. But the survivors are saddled up again, along with some newcomers to fill those empty desks. And all I need now are their names.