Do You, Do You Wanna Be My Sidekick, Sidekick*

The Evolution of the SidekickOne of the interesting developments we’ve seen in crime fiction over the past decades has been in the role of the ‘second in command,’ or sidekick. This character plays a very important role in a novel or series. Authors use assistants/sidekicks to give a different perspective on the sleuth, to provide plot twists, and sometimes, to find out information. And these characters can be very interesting in their own right.

In many (certainly not all!) classic and Golden Age novels, the assistant may find clues and so on; and sometimes, the sleuth is both aware of and grateful for the assistant’s input. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson and Agatha Christie’s Captain Hastings are arguably examples of this. Both of these characters are intelligent, educated people, and not unusually foolish or gullible. They provide perspectives that help Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, respectively, and they certainly don’t sit idly by, gaping in admiring awe. At the same time, in both cases, it’s the sleuth who solves the case. The sleuth puts the pieces of the puzzle together, and makes the vital connections.

In some cases, the sidekick has even been a detriment to the sleuth (I’m thinking, for instance, of Catherine Aird’s Inspector Sloan/Constable Crosby series. Fans of this series know that Crosby is not exactly what you’d call an original, insightful thinker. Of course, not all assistants have been incompetent, but we certainly see them.

As we look at more modern crime fiction, though, we see assistants coming into their own, if I may put it this way. Many of today’s fictional assistants solve cases, carry their own sub-plots, and more. And lots of crime fiction fans like it that way.

Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel/Peter Pascoe series is an example of this development (although I grant it’s not a new series). Fans of this series will know that Peter Pascoe is at least the intellectual equal of his boss. He looks at life differently, and of course, Dalziel is still the boss. But Pascoe more than carries his proverbial weight. In several of the novels in this series (I’m thinking, for instance of Pictures of Perfection), it’s really Pascoe who does a lot of the investigating. His character is, at the very least, as well developed as that of Dalziel.

The same might be said of Sergeant Siobhan Clarke, who ‘co-stars’ in Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series. Rebus is Clarke’s boss, but she contributes a great deal to their investigations. She has skills that Rebus doesn’t have; and, in novels such as Resurrection Men, she more than proves that she can handle cases. As the series goes on, it becomes clear that Rebus respects her, too, and depends on her, and not just for admiration. In fact, in novels such as Exit Music, Clarke takes on her share of interviews (even difficult ones) and other police work.

There’s a very interesting sleuth/assistant relationship in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Carl Mørck series. When the series begins (Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes)), Mørck is assigned to head the newly-formed ‘Department Q,’ which is tasked with looking into cases of ‘special interest.’ This basically amounts to cold cases that, for political reasons, are getting new attention (mostly to show that the police are doing their jobs). Mørck insists on having an assistant, and is provided one in the form of Hafez al Assad, who’s originally hired to clean. But Assad very soon proves to be much more than just a floor-sweeper and teapot-washer. He has a somewhat mysterious past, which we learn in bits as the series goes on. And he has surprising skills that his boss doesn’t even know about, at least at first. And he has a way of getting Mørck to do things and think about things that he otherwise wouldn’t. He’s most definitely his own person.

There are certainly plenty of modern assistants (e.g. Ausma Zehanat Khan’s Rachel Getty) who have things to learn, and who look to their bosses for guidance. But those assistants are also skilled and intelligent in their own right. They have their own histories, personalities and perspectives. Their bosses know this, and many value and depend on their assistants for that reason.

I don’t have the data to support this, but I see a connection between this evolution of the assistant/sidekick and the evolution of crime fiction fans’ interest in rich character development. As crime fiction fans continue to want better developed characters, it makes a lot of sense that that would include assistants and sidekicks. And most readers are not satisfied with the assistant whose only purpose is to bask in the sleuth’s glory, so to speak.

What do you think about this? Have you noticed that sidekicks and assistants are getting more deeply developed and capable as characters? If you have, why do you think this is? If you’re a writer who’s created an assistant, how do you think about this?

ps. You may notice that I didn’t include Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin here. I often wonder whether he’s really a sidekick, even if he is officially an employee.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Walk the Moon’s Sidekick.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ausma Zehanat Khan, Catherine Aird, Ian Rankin, Reginald Hill

34 responses to “Do You, Do You Wanna Be My Sidekick, Sidekick*

  1. Tim

    Interesting counter-argument: notice how Hammett’s and Chandler’s gumshoes (like their kith, kin, and klones) need no sidekicks. Well, there is the minor exception in _The Maltese Falcon_ (and perhaps others among the hard-boiled good eggs) but that sidekick kicks the bucket at the beginning of the fun-and-games.

  2. I wonder if it’s also influenced by the move away from amateur detectives and even PIs towards police procedurals? In a police procedural it doesn’t really make sense to have the assistants with no role, since what police force would keep them on the payroll? Also I think there’s been a move towards a more ‘real time’ attitude to series, so that the original detective ages and his subordinates move gradually into more senior roles. Not having a particularly extensive knowledge of crime fiction, I may be completely wrong, but it seems to me two of the examples you mentioned led the way in that movement – Dalziel and Pascoe (and later Wieldy), and Rebus and Clarke (and now Malcolm Fox). It does allow the author to age his characters with the backup scenario of having an established character to bring to the fore when the original one gets too old to be believable. I also wonder, just with you mentioning the Hill series not being new, if that’s why it seems new – it always seems to sit better with contemporary crime fiction than with the ‘classics’, though the early books were written way back in the ’70s…

    • Oh, that makes an awful lot of sense, FictionFan! There’s definitely a move towards police procedurals in the last decades, isn’t there. And you’re absolutely right that the Hill and Rankin series did seem to lead the way. I’m not sure what the cutoff point that marks ‘contemporary’ is, but I do think those authors really were trend setters. I’m thinking also of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. But in that case, much as I like Lewis, I’m not sure, for much of the series, whether he really takes the lead on a lot of cases. He certainly finds out a lot of information, and he does help Morse. Hmm…

      I really do see the point you make, too, about the value of letting characters age and move on, and newer characters take their places, or at least take a stronger role. I wonder about that, for instance, with Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano series. He’s got several team members who could start to ‘move up.’ That’s a really interesting prospect, so thank you for the ‘food for thought.’

  3. Oh, absolutely. I’m seeing this more and more in the books I read. And, as a writer, I use “assistants” to play off my main character. James Scott Bell talks about this technique in one of his craft books (the title escapes me, as usual – sorry). When one character, say, assumes the “adult” role whereas the other character assumes the “child” role, the end result can be very entertaining, if not downright hilarious at times.

  4. I read somewhere in my readings on writing crime (after I wrote my first crime novel, of course) that a sidekick should never overpower the sleuth/detective/investigator. I felt I had done mine all wrong because my co-protagonist took over. She didn’t mean to, but happened to be at the right place at the right time and she had a mind of her own. She basically became the heroine. I like it that way. It’s the first book in the series, and because she totally rocked (beta readers loved her), I had my protagonist ask her to be his partner. Now readers can be certain she’ll reappear.

    • Oh, SK, I love it that you let your character develop naturally. I’ll bet she’s really interesting. And that probably makes your story all the more interesting, too. If you’ve found that going with that character’s strength has made your writing better and your stories more engaging, then that’s what matters.

  5. In JK Rowling’s crime series (oh, all right, let’s call her Robert Galbraith then!), Robin certainly starts out very much as the junior assistant to Cormoran Strike, and her boss initially appears to be very much the hardboiled lone PI of Chandleresque fame. But Robin plays Robin to Batman and humanises him – I like the way Rowling subverts both classic crime tropes and gender stereotypes there.

    • I do, too, Marina Sofia. And you’re quite right that Robin turns out to be more than just the junior assistant, too. So there’s also that character development, I think. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  6. Col

    I tend to prefer PI novels over police procedurals, and most of them are lone wolf types. I do like Crais’s pairing of Cole and Pike though.

    • That is an interesting pairing, isn’t it, Col? Pike is most definitely more than just Cole’s assistant. And as the series goes on and we learn more about him, he becomes even stronger.

  7. As noted in a comment above, the problem with creating sidekicks is that they sometimes threaten to become more interesting than the main character. In my wip, the sidekick is the female protagonist’s boss and it has been very difficult to keep him from overshadowing her.

    • I can imagine, Pat. If a character grows and develops (which is, after all, what readers and writers want!), there’s always the risk that the character will take on so much of a life of his/her own that s/he does overshadow the protagonist. Then, the author has to decide how to work that into the story (or not).

  8. I’d be your sidekick Margot! I’ve always enjoyed the detective/sidekick dynamic, and it’s a really interesting thought that it led to the rich character development we’re seeing in a lot of crime fiction lately.

  9. kathyd

    It’s hard to distinguish. I think Archie Goodwin is more of a sidekick than an assistant, however, Wolfe pays his salary. They’re not equals. If Wolfe doesn’t like what Goodwin is doing, he yells at him and he could fire him. So it’s not an equal relationship plus Goodwin has to do a lot of personal errands and favors for Wolfe, like paying his bills.
    Montalbano has a lot of assistants. Maybe Fazio is more of a sidekick, but Montalbano still bosses him around and issues orders to him.

    • You have a well-taken point in both cases, Kathy. In my opinion, the boss/subordinate position is a little more obvious in Camilleri’s Montalbano series. But most definitely, Wolfe pays the salaries, and Goodwin could be fired. So as you say they’re not equal in that sense.

  10. I think you have got the evolution right Margot – we have far richer characters and it makes sense that even the side-kicks have something valuable to contribute. I am pleased you featured Pictures of Perfection as this is on my 20 Books of Summer 2016 list. Although Morse was only started fractionally earlier than the Dalziel and Pascoe books his sidekick was more in the mould of Captain Hastings I think.

    • Now, that’s an interesting point, Cleo. I’ve trying to ‘place’ Sgt. Lewis, myself. On the one hand, I agree with you that he’s a little more like the ‘old school’ sidekick. But Dexter did have him doing some investigating on his own. And he certainly does his share in terms of getting information and so on. But no doubt at all, I think, about the Dalziel and Pascoe series. Pascoe does come into his own in the course. And I really do hope you’ll like Pictures of Perfection. Of course, in my opinion, Hill’s always worth reading, so I’m biased. Still…

      • Yes, he almost falls between the two poles – maybe Lewis doesn’t get the kudos in the same way that Dalziel allows Pascoe his moments?

        • Oh, I like that analysis, Cleo! That really is a difference between Morse and Dalziel, isn’t it, when it comes to giving/getting kudos. That’s an interesting pair of dynamics, and an interesting comparison.

  11. And dont you just love a book where the dog is the sidekick – helping to discover clues, protecting…and when written from the dogs perspective – hilarious 🙂 The Chet and Bernie Mysteries by Spencer Quinn are wonderful.

  12. Margot, two delightful sidekicks/assistants I can think of are Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Psmith. Never tire of reading about them. They are involved with the lives of Wooster and Lord Elmsworth, respectively; fortunately, in a nice way.

    • You know, Prashant, I hadn’t thought of Wodehouse’s characters, but you’re right. They are delightful, and they certainly add both wit and character depth to the series. Thanks for the suggestion.

  13. There’s certainly been a move forward from the days of the stupid sidekick, whose job is to be astounded by the detective’s cleverness. I think we all want something a bit more nuanced now. In Ngaio Marsh’s books, Fox is sidekick to Alleyn, and I think Marsh thought she was escaping the cliche – Fox is nice, and smart,a nd has his own skills, but I still find their class-based differences rather wince-making.

    • Funny you’d mention about class, Moira. You are absolutely right about Fox and Alleyn, and it’s interesting that just as Marsh thought she was making Fox a stronger and more nuanced character, she reinforced a different sort of stereotype. I wonder if she was even aware of it. And you’ve a very well-taken point that readers do want more than just ‘cardboard cutout’ stupid sidekicks. They’re boring, if I may be honest.

  14. tracybham

    Much of my reading seems to feature loners, but I do like police detective pairs. In Jill McGown’s series, there is the pairing of Inspector Lloyd and Sergeant Judy Hill, but later in the series they work as equals. I also like the Cynthia Harrod-Eagles series with DI Bill Slider and his partner, DS Jim Atherton.

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