The Secrets Behind Pop Culture's Most Mysterious Pseudonyms

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The anonymity was fun while it lasted. A little over three months ago, a new crime writer debuted with a new novel about a new detective. The book did quiet business and picked up some decent reviews… until the revelation that it was really by a rather successful former children’s author kicked it aggressively up the bestseller lists. If you’ve missed the story so far, we’ve included it below, along with those of ten other famous authors who chose, for various reasons, to be other people for a while.

Pseudonym: Robert Galbraith

You may have heard of Jo Rowling: she wrote a series of books about a boy wizard called ‘Harry Potter’. Following that multi-billion dollar juggernaut, Rowling published the small-town drama The Casual Vacancy, which did perfectly well, but unsurprisingly attracted huge critical attention as her first non-Potter work. So as an experiment, and a way to sidestep that weight of expectation, Rowling published the recent The Cuckoo’s Calling – a mystery novel intended as the first in a new series about detective Cormoran Strike – under the pen-name ‘Robert Galbraith’.

Gratifyingly for the author, it was well-reviewed: hailed by more than one source as the arrival of an exciting new talent. Less gratifyingly, it shifted only 1500 copies in its three months of anonymity (which, depressingly, is actually pretty good for a hardcover by an unknown author). Still, Galbraith would probably have continued unrumbled for at least another book, if not for a loudmouth among Rowling’s solicitors and an eagle-eyed Times journalist. But since Galbraith shared both Rowling’s publisher and editor, someone was bound to twig at some point.

Pseudonym: Richard Bachman

Early in his career Stephen King was contractually unable to publish more than one book a year. Given his success even then, you might think that would be enough, but since he was as prolific then as he is now, he created the ‘Bachman’ brand. It was partly to get more books out there, but also as an experiment to see if his success under his own name had been down to talent or luck. Thinner sold five times as many copies when outed as a King novel than it had as a Bachman, but King says the plan didn’t get enough time to play out.

Along with Thinner, the novels written as Bachman before he was discovered were Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork and The Running Man. Misery would have been Bachman’s sixth had he not been found out. The first four were collected as omnibus edition The Bachman Books, but modern editions no longer include Rage, which King took out of print when it was implicated in a school shooting. King has occasionally returned to the Bachman name for shits and giggles in subsequent years: for The Regulators (a companion to the King novel Desperation) and Blaze. He later used the Bachman experience for the novel The Dark Half, in which an author’s angry killed-off pseudonym gains a life of its own. He also dropped some Bachman shenanigans into the Dark Tower series, and played a character called ‘Bachman’ on Sons of Anarchy.

Pseudonym: ‘J.D. Robb’

Like Stephen King, Nora Roberts is so prolific that a single name couldn’t contain her. Initially churning out tonnes of romance novels for Silhouette – kind of an American Mills & Boon – it turned out that what she really wanted to write was strange sci-fi mysteries. To avoid wrong-footing her core audience, the “J.D. Robb” pseudonym was hatched, from part of her surname and the initials of her sons.

As Robb, she’s now written 36 novels in the In Death series: futuristic police procedurals with a husband-and-wife team cracking the cases. Kind of like Nick and Nora Charles, but in the 2050s and without the alcoholism or the dog. As Roberts, her next novel (and her fourth this year!) will be the supernatural family saga Dark Witch, out for Halloween.

Pseudonym: ‘Ross Harding’

The much-missed Gemmell, author of gloriously thick-headed heroic fantasy classics like Legend and Waylander, penned a solitary crime novel under the name ‘Ross Harding’. Originally conceived to some extent as a work for television, White Knight Black Swan is a gritty urban gangland thriller featuring a protagonist called Bimbo Jardine: described by the blurb as “a giant leg-breaker with a heart of gold”. He had a type, did Gemmell. The novel received a single paperback printing in 1993 and has been unavailable ever since. A decent copy will set you back a grand on Amazon. Or at least, there’s one listed there: whether anyone has ever actually paid that is another matter.

The lesson Gemmell seemed to take from the Harding experience was to stick to what he was known for. He did later stray into the realms of historical fiction, with series’s revolving around King Arthur, the Spartans and Alexander the Great, but was careful to bleed fantasy elements into them for that particular Gemmell thang. Only his final trilogy, based around the legend of Troy, plays relatively straight.

Pseudonyms: ‘Anne Rampling’ and ‘A.N. Roquelaure’

Best known for her vampire novels – Interview With The Vampire, The Vampire Lestat and so on – and more recently for a controversial series about the early life of Jesus, Anne Rice used pseudonyms in a mid-‘80s splurge writing sadomasochist erotica. There’s sex in the vampire books, but you would not believe what goes on in the Sleeping Beauty trilogy.

As Anne Rampling, Rice wrote Belinda and Exit To Eden (and yes, that is the same Exit To Eden that somehow became a comedy cop movie with Dan Aykroyd and Rosie O’Donnell). The latter is about a woman running a BDSM sex-slave holiday resort, and the former concerns a dodgy relationship between a 44-year-old author and a teenage girl. As A. N. Roquelaure meanwhile, Rice went for a very particular kind of fairy tale fantasy. The Claiming Of Sleeping Beauty starts with the titular heroine woken from her 100-year slumber by rather more than a kiss, and she’s then subjected to any number of fleshly adventures and submissive humiliations by the kinky wicked queen over subsequent instalments Beauty’s Punishment and Beauty’s Release.

Rice reportedly ended this phase of her career when she actually met some real BDSM exponents and got freaked out. Her husband Stan has said that in real life she’s “no more a sadomasochist than she is a vampire”.

Pseudonym: ‘Ed McBain’

Evan Hunter was perfectly well-known and successful in his own right. Perhaps most famously, he used his experience as a teacher in the Bronx to fuel The Blackboard Jungle, only one of around 40 novels he penned. He also wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (loosely based on Daphne du Maurier’s Cornish-set short story) and was fired from Hitch’s subsequent Marnie over a disagreement about the rape scene.

It’s as Ed McBain however, that Hunter was best known and most prolific. He wrote more than 50 novels in his famous 87th Precinct cop series between 1956 and 2005, along with a 20-year series about lawyer Matthew Hope. 87th Precinct became an NBC series in the 1960s, and Akira Kurosawa filmed King’s Ransom in 1963, as High And Low, starring Toshiro Mifune. Hunter revealed that he was McBain in 1958, but never stopped using the name.

Pseudonym: ‘A. M. Barnard’

The thoroughly laudable Louisa May Alcott worked as a nurse during the American Civil War and was a tireless advocate of women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. She was also, of course, the author of the wholesome perennial classics Little Women, Good Wives, Little Men and Jo’s Boys.

But Alcott wrote a handful of more scurrilous adventures under the pen name A. M. Barnard (note the deliberately gender-free moniker). These rather racy and sensationalist entertainments included the Gothic romance A Long Fatal Love Chase, and the revenge melodrama Pauline’s Passion And Punishment.

Alcott was only discovered to be Barnard by an academic studying her letters in the 1970s. A Long Fatal Love Chase was published for the first time in 1995.

Pseudonym: ‘Mary Westmacott’

The Queen of Crime™ needs no introduction. The author of 66 detective novels and 15 short story collections, she gave the world Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and the world’s longest-running theatre production, The Mousetrap, which is still going in London after 60 years (still, we won’t tell you who did it, just in case). She also famously staged a mystery of her own in 1926, going missing for ten days for reasons that have never been definitively explained.

Away from all the crime and the puzzles, however, Christie was also Mary Westmacott for a handful of novels between 1930 and 1956, using the nom de plume to write romance. Oddly, it was never a secret that Westmacott's name was pseudonymous – Westmacott’s blurb on her first novel Giant’s Bread stated that she was really already a successful author – and it was only Christie’s identity that was kept quiet. She was revealed to be Westmacott in 1949. In her 1977 autobiography, she named Absent In The Spring (1944) as her favourite among all her own books.

Pseudonym: ‘Paul French’

The visionary sci-fi author and popular scientist is best known for his Robot and Foundation novels, with their three laws and their complex “psychohistory” respectively. And away from his core interests, he wrote sci-fi adventures for children, as Paul French.

The first of the Lucky Starr books was commissioned from Asimov to form the basis of a potential TV series, which, given Asimov’s disdain for the shows he was seeing, he didn’t want his name anywhere near. Hence the alter ego, which stretched to six adventures between 1952 and 1958. Once plans for the show fell through, he ceased worrying whether people knew French was him, and even threw the Laws of Robotics into the penultimate volume as a not-too-subtle clue.

Pseudonym: ‘John Lange’

Jurassic Parker Crichton was published as John Lange long before he started writing under his own name. He seems to have taken the pseudonym decision to keep his writing separate and anonymous from the medical career he was pursuing in the 1960s. ‘Lange’ was a joke: the German for “long” and a reference to his immense height (Crichton was 6'9").

As Lange, his novels performed well enough, but the first effort under his own name was his biggest success to date: The Andromeda Strain, published in 1969, put Crichton on the bestseller lists and was filmed by Robert Wise in 1971. Other Lange books followed – as well as one by ‘Jeffery Hudson’ and one by ‘Michael Douglas’ – but Crichton dropped the pen names when he dropped medicine in 1970. Surprisingly few of the Lange books have been brought back into print under Crichton’s own name in the years since, but they seem to be on their way to Kindle as “Crichton: The Med School Years”.

Pseudonym: Richard Stark

Master crime writer Donald E. Westlake published his first novel, All My Lovers (aka Apprentice Virgin!) in 1959, under the pseudonym Alan Marshall. A further 13 books under that name followed before he started using his own, and he’d continue to publish as Westlake (40-odd times) until his death in 2008. Marshall was only one of an amazing 16 nom-de-plumes he employed over his career, however, and the most famous of those alter egos was undoubtedly Richard Stark.

It was Stark was responsible for Parker, the criminal-with-a-code who stalked through 24 novels between 1962 and 2008. Parker himself went by other names in the films Point Blank (from The Hunter), The Split (from The Seventh), The Outfit, and Payback (The Hunter again). The first time we got a Parker who was actually called Parker was this year’s Jason Statham movie of that name (adapted from the 19th novel, Flashfire). George Stark, the come-alive killer pen name in Stephen King’s The Dark Half, was named in tribute to Richard.