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A Study in Syllables

In a variety of contexts we all will have heard the expression “what’s in a name?”. As it turns out, I suspect that there is rather a lot in a name.

Sherlock Holmes was by no means the only literary detective in the late nineteenth century. Around or after his "death" at Reichenbach other detectives popped up in an effort to get a slice of the detection "cake" and eventually take advantage of Holmes's absence by snaring readers who were desperate for anyone to fill the void left by the great detective’s fall.

Let’s look at two of them.

Loveday Brooke was the creation of Catherine Louisa Pirkis and first appeared in print in February 1893 in The Ludgate Monthly. Pirkis took the bold decision to have a lady detective which was certainly different in an age when many professions were actually or effectively off-limits to women.

Loveday Brooke
Pirkis was not exactly flattering to her creation. Take this description of Brooke from the first story The Black Bag Left on a Door-step.

"She was not tall, she was not short; she was not dark, she was not fair; she was neither handsome nor ugly. Her features were altogether nondescript; her one noticeable trait was a habit she had, when absorbed in thought, of dropping her eyelids over her eyes till only a line of eyeball showed, and she appeared to be looking out at the world through a slit, instead of through a window."


Brooke comes to the attention of the boss of a detective agency - Ebenezer Dyer. Pirkis may have given her detective a male boss to appease the more patriarchal elements of Victorian society he also no doubt existed to provide access to areas of Victorian society that were off-limits to Brooke. He sums her up thus in the same story:

"I don't care twopence-halfpenny whether she is or is not a lady. I only know she is the most sensible and practical woman I ever met. In the first place, she has the faculty–so rare among women–of carrying out orders to the very letter: in the second place, she has a clear, shrewd brain, unhampered by any hard-and-fast theories; thirdly, and most important item of all, she has so much common sense that it amounts to genius–positively to genius, sir."

A number of compliments surrounding one decidedly sexist insult although it probably was not seen as such at the time.

The second detective to look at is Sexton Blake

Sexton Blake

He appeared on the scene pretty much as Holmes went over the falls (unlike Brooke who had debuted a few months before). Illustrators made him the very image of Holmes and he did, for a period, operate out of Baker Street.


But was it pure coincidence that these two pretenders to the throne had exactly the same number of syllables in their names?

  • Sher-lock Holmes
  • Love-day Brooke
  • Sex-ton Blake

Or was this a very conscious thing on the part of the creators to make them sound similar to Holmes?


The Three-syllable detectives


I touched on this subject back in 2011 (post here).

Written by Alistair Duncan Buy my books here

3 comments:

  1. Have you read E S Turner's book "Boys Will Be Boys"? He looks at the fashion for giving detectives of boys' magazines from the early 20th century on names that repeat the two-syllable-one-syllable format of "Sherlock Holmes". Examples: Dixon Hawke, Falcon Swift, Nelson Lee, and my favourite, Ferrers Locke, brother of the Headmaster of Greyfriars School. The topic is also touched on in "Jennings Goes to School" by Anthony Buckeridge.
    Roger Johnson

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    1. No I haven't but I will be looking out for a copy now. Thanks Roger.

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