April 21, 2004

The mysteries of... what's his name?

My partner Barbara reads mystery novels, and has a favorite author. He is her favorite by a mile. He's a Swede, with a fascinating lifestyle that involves dividing his time between writing mysteries in Sweden for part of the year and directing a theater in Mozambique, in southern Africa, for the rest. He is a familiar name around our house. His books lie around in various places near chairs and couches and other likely reading places, and his photo looks up at us from the back of many of his excellent paperbacks about his fictional Swedish detective, Inspector Kurt Wallander, whose name we always recall. Only there is a tradition of our not being able to actually recall the name of the author himself with any precision. We have many of the consonants down, and a rough idea of the sort of vowels, but it doesn't come together. It may be Manning Henkall. Or possibly Hanning Menkell (that could be Menkall). I don't have one of his books in front of me as I write this. I don't know why a simple Germanic name like Henkell Manning (sp.?) should be so difficult to remember; Menning is easy enough, so is Hankell, so what's the problem?

Barbara really loves this guy and gets all his books. Occasionally she'll mislay one, and wander round the house saying, "Have you seen my Manning Henkell? Umm... Manking Hennall?" I always look solemn and pretend not to understand who she means. I feel it's incumbent on me to make this stand for accuracy. Only the truth is that I can't remember his name either. Neither of us can. Like I say, it's a tradition.

The only thing I can think is that neither the first name, Hennall, nor the last name, Menking (or was it Manning?), is particularly familiar to us as a name, and all the syllables involved fit together perfectly well. A simple run of a triple-loop shell script running through the combinations convinces me that there are only 48 possibilities (I'm quite sure of the vowel of ing, and the others are definitely a or e in each case); so the possibilities are not endless. The name of one of the best current mystery writers in the world is definitely on this list:

Hankall Manning Hanning MankellHenking Mennall
Hankall Menning Hanning MenkallHenking Mennell
Hankell Manning Hanning MenkellHenning Mankall
Hankell Menning Henkall ManningHenning Mankell
Hanking Mannall Henkall MenningHenning Menkall
Hanking Mannell Henkell ManningHenning Menkell
Hanking Mennall Henkell MenningMankall Hanning
Hanking Mennell Henking MannallMankall Henning
Hanning Mankall Henking MannellMankell Hanning
Mankell Henning Manning HenkallMenking Hannell
Manking Hannall Manning HenkellMenking Hennall
Manking Hannell Menkall HanningMenking Hennell
Manking Hennall Menkall HenningMenning Hankall
Manking Hennell Menkell HanningMenning Hankell
Manning Hankall Menkell HenningMenning Henkall
Manning Hankell Menking HannallMenning Henkell

This is one place where Google has a bit of a problem: if you really don't know anything more about the name than this, computer searches are going to be quite difficult without the power of grep (i.e., regular expression searching capability, which Google doesn't offer). One might do best to search on one of this titles, like... let's see... The Dogs of Riga (that one is set mainly in Latvia).

Anyway, the books are wonderful, the plots are deep and intelligent, the sense of place is masterful, the characterization is adult and thoughtful. Only the name escapes me. Sorry about that. Hope I haven't confused you. (Was it Menning Henkall?)

[Actually, it may be none of the above. I was completely wrong about there being 48 possibilities. I discovered later that there are actually 256.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at April 21, 2004 02:04 PM