Thursday, September 24, 2009

Sidekicks and Assistants

One of the fixtures in many good mystery/crime fiction novels and series is the sidekick, or assistant. Sideicks play several roles in a good mystery, and I see their roles as having changed a great deal as crime and mystery fiction (and society in general) has evolved.

An example of the classic sidekick is, of course, Conan Doyle's Watson. Dr. Watson served a few purposes in the Sherlock Holmes stories. He served as Holmes' biographer, so that readers could follow Holmes' career. More importantly, he served a vital point-of-view function. Watson allowed Conan Doyle to impress the reader with Holmes' powers of observation and deduction, because Watson was not gifted with the same powers (although he was by no means a stupid person). When Holmes explained to Watson how he arrived at his conclusions, he also explained his methods to the reader.

The sidekick takes on a different, more active set of roles during the Golden Age of crime fiction. For instance, Rex Stout's Archie Goodwin does Wolfe's "legwork" for him. This means that Goodwin contributes to the solution of many of Wolfe's cases. Goodwin is a licensed private detective, and does all of the casework that involves leaving the brownstone in which he and Wolfe have homes. He is tough, has his own "street smarts" and charm, and is gifted in his own right about getting information from witnesses. He also has a phenomenal memory. He is indispensible. Mervyn Bunter, Lord Peter Wimsey's valet and friend, is just as indispensible in Dorothy Sayers' series. Although Bunter doesn't actually go out and do any investigation, he does provide a valuable perspective, vital assistance and steadfast loyalty.

We see the same friendship between Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and his most frequent assistant, Captain Arthur Hastings. Like Watson, Hastings serves the role of biographer. However, he does much more than that. He serves as a sounding-board for Poirot's ideas, and Poirot recognizes that. In Thirteen at Dinner (AKA Lord Edgeware Dies), Poirot tells Hastings how much he values Hastings' perspective (although admittedly, Hastings doesn't at first recognize Poirot's words for the compliment they are). In The ABC Murders, Hastings calls attention to an important clue that Poirot nearly misses, and Poirot thanks him for preventing Poirot from committing the "unforgiveable sin" of "overlooking the obvious."

In other Christie novels, it's not quite as clear who is the sleuth and who is the sidekick. In the Tommy and Tuppence Beresford novels, one could argue that Tommy is the "official" detective, and Tuppence his assistant. However, it's often Tuppence who gets vital information, hears important gossip (and therefore, clues) and finds out the truth. The two really are interdependent.

In more modern crime fiction, the sidekick has taken on an even more interesting and important set of roles. For example, in Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, Stephanie is often assisted by Ricardo Carlos Manoso, AKA Ranger. Ranger is in top physical form and goes with Stepahnie on many of her fugitive apprehension cases. He's saved her life more than once. Ranger, though, is an interesting character in his own right. He's a former member of the Special Forces, and has a colorful, if somewhat mysterious, past.

One of the most fascinating sidekicks I've read about is Mma Grace Matsuki, Assistant Detective to Mma Precious Ramotswe in Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Mma Matsuki is a highly competent, efficient secretary who scored an unheard-of 97% on her exam at the Botswana College of Secretarial and Office Skills. She is much more than a secretary, though. She's highly intelligent and has deductive powers of her own, so when Mma Ramotswe recognizes her skills, she promotes Mma Matuski to the rank of Assistant Detective. She also becomes Assistant Manager of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, and shows her organizational skills as she manages both enterprises and investigates her own cases. She also opens and runs the Kalahari Typing School for Men, takes care of her ailing brother and never forgets to send money back home to her family. Far from a mere biographer, Grace Matsuki is a strong central character in her own right.

My own sleuth, Joel Williams, doesn't have a regular sidekick or assistant. He depends on his wife, Laura, an Assistant District Attorney, for her input on the cases he's involved with, and he gets valuable information from several different sources. For instance, in Publish or Perish, Williams gets important information from a small group of his students who do their own detecting. Although Williams doesn't have an "official" assistant, I admire the way that other authors have used sidekick and assistant characters to give perspective, to gather evidence that the sleuth wouldn't otherwise have access to, and to add a real richness to the stories.

Who are your favorite sidekicks? What do you think sidekicks add to a good mystery?


  1. Like you, I am very fond of Bunter, and I´d say that Peter Wimsey lets him investigate now and then (in the servants´ quarters, of course).

    I also like Elizabeth George´s Barbara Havers (who is so much more real than the icon Lynley), and Andrew Taylor´s Jill Francis (though it is also difficult to say whether it is she or Richard Thornhill who is the protagonist).

  2. Oh, thank you, Dorte, for reminding me of Jill Francis! She is a great character and I agree with you; she's strong enough and gets involved enough that it's hard to say whether she is really a sidekick or protagonist.

  3. Lewis in the Morse books. And now he has his sidekick in the Lewis series.

  4. Patti,
    I was thinking about Lewis, myself! In fact, I got rather annoyed with myself that I hadn't mentioned him, because he is such an interesting and integral part of the Morse series. I can just *hear* Morse calling, "Lew-is!" Thank you for that reminder. Now I'll go have some eggs and chips ;).

  5. Margot, your contribution to my mini-review roundup is posted here. Thanks for participating.

  6. Thanks for the opportunity to contribute, Kerrie :)