I Was Just a Kid, They All Called Me ‘Sidekick.’

young-sidekicksAn interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about the roles that young people play in crime novels. It’s a bit tricky to have a young person as the sleuth (‘though there are exceptions, such as Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series). It’s also tricky to have a young person as a sidekick. After all, investigating crime is dangerous, even deadly at times, and adult sleuths wouldn’t want to put a young person in harm’s way. What’s more, it can be a challenge to write a convincing young character. Still, there are some interesting examples of young people playing the role of crime-fictional sidekicks.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes can tell you that, in several of those stories, Holmes makes use of a group of street children he calls the Baker Street Irregulars. Led by a boy called Wiggins, they serve as Holmes’ ‘eyes and ears’ in some cases. They have an advantage in those situations in that no-one really takes very much notice of them at all. So they can easily follow people, keep watch on a place, and so on. Holmes himself treats them quite the same as he does his more adult informants, and that’s not surprising. For one thing, he respects anyone who helps with his cases. For another, many Victorians didn’t see the need to especially protect children, or shield them from danger. As you’ll know, it wasn’t until late in the 19th Century that laws protecting child workers were passed and began to be enforced. Holmes’ attitude towards the Baker Street Irregulars isn’t strange, considering the era.

By the time Agatha Christie was writing, attitudes towards young people had changed, and we see that as her sleuths encounter young people. Still, there are examples of young people as sidekicks in her work. In 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!), for instance, a friend of Miss Marple’s is on a train when she sees a murder. At first, no-one believes her, because nobody’s been reported missing, and there isn’t a body. But Miss Marple doesn’t think her friend was imagining things. She deduces that the body must be on the property of Rutherford Hall, which belongs to the Crackenthorpe family. So she makes an arrangement with professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow. Lucy will apply for a position as the Crackenthorpe’s temporary housekeeper, and do some sleuthing during her stay. All goes as planned, and Lucy settles in. That’s when she meets Alexander Eastley (grandson of patriarch Luther Crackenthorpe) and his friend, James Stoddart-West. The two boys are home for the Christmas holidays, and they’re only too eager to find clues and help solve the mystery. Lucy has concerns for them, because they’re just boys. But they prove helpful, too.

One question we might ask is: at what age does a young person become an adult? The answer to that question has changed over time, and I’m not sure we’d all agree on it. Still, if you look at Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil, there’s an interesting example of a young sidekick whom you could argue still falls into the ‘not really an adult yet’ category. She is nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill. When her father, Leander, dies suddenly of a heart attack, she becomes convinced that his death was planned. She visits Queen, who’s staying in a rented home nearby, and asks him to investigate. At first, he’s very reluctant. But then she tells him that, prior to his death, her father had received a series of macabre ‘gifts’ that led to his heart attack. So, says Laurel, did his business partner, Roger Priam. This piques Queen’s interest, and he starts looking into the matter. Laurel Hill may be all of nineteen, but she’s still rather innocent and vulnerable. That doesn’t stop her being very helpful as Queen investigations, and she certainly sees herself as his assistant.

Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police Sergeant Jim Chee gets an unexpected sidekick in The Ghostway. In that novel, he’s looking into the death of Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo who’s come to live on the Reservation. At the same time, he is assigned to find Margaret Billy Sosi, a sixteen-year-old Navajo girl who has gone missing from the school she attends. Chee traces the girl back to Los Angeles, where she’s clearly following a lead on the Gorman case. It turns out that Gorman was a distant relative of Margaret’s, and that she got a postcard from her grandfather about him. Chee finds Margaret; and, although they don’t officially work together (in fact, he is very worried for her safety), she does help a lot in solving the case. She even saves Chee’s life at one point.

The protagonist and sleuth in Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Memphis Barbecue Series is Lulu Taylor. She’s the owner of Aunt Pat’s, a well-respected Memphis restaurant. Lulu’s nine-year-old granddaughter Ella Beth is a budding detective, and actually keeps a detective notebook in which she writes down things she sees and describes people she encounters. And in Finger Lickin’ Dead, it’s Ella Beth who discovers the body of bitterly-hated restaurant critic Adam Cawthorn. On the one hand, she’s not Lulu’s ‘official’ sidekick. But she’s got the same curiosity and interest, and Lulu can see her becoming a police officer or PI when she’s grown. That said though, Lulu does feel protective of her, and doesn’t deliberately expose her to danger.

And that’s the thing about young sidekicks in crime fiction. There’s a delicate balance between the very credible desire to protect them and keep them away from murder investigations on the one hand, and their curiosity (and sometimes, helpful assistance) on the other. Which young sidekicks have stayed with you?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Now, folks, give yourselves a treat and go visit Clothes in Books. Excellent reviews, and interesting discussion on fictional clothes and popular culture, and what it all says about us, await you.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Guy Clark’s Desperados Waiting For a Train.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Riley Adams, Tony Hillerman

22 responses to “I Was Just a Kid, They All Called Me ‘Sidekick.’

  1. Col

    I think I’ve read the Hillerman book mentioned, but can’t remember a thing about it other than the title. I’m envious again of your total recall!

    • Well, Col, as I often say, not much else rattling round in my brain, so plenty of room for crime fiction. That Hillerman, by the way, is worth a re-read if you ever get the time. I think it’s one of his good ‘uns.

  2. It has been some years since I read Gladys Mitchell’s The Rising of the Moon, but I do recall that two young boys play a part in the story – half sidekicks (of Mrs. Bradley) and half detectives. The book is narrated by 13-year-old Simon Innes who, along with his 11-year-old brother, Keith,become involved in the hunt for someone who is murdering women when the moon is full. Simon and Keith get involved when it appears that their older brother may be a suspect.

    • Thanks, Les, as ever. That’s exactly the sort of crime novel I had in mind, where we see young people take a more active role as sidekicks, or at least, participants, in detection. It’s interesting to see, too, how our views of what boys that age ‘should’ be doing have changed over the years.

  3. A.M. Pietroschek

    You are true on a shocking number of ‘bestselling authors’ failing to develop the kind of character you call a sidekick. Many kids are dished, as if to satisfy a quota and not, as if to entertain readers or audiences.

    Luckily the opposite is true, too. As we know books and TV series which considered sidekicks, who then became major roles carrying the success along!

    I feel some humble satisfaction due reminding that, in real life, all of us are the protagonists of the own ‘story’. And I am exceptionally certain that I am right with seeing my host as much more than a mere contact on a list of authors or another delver in crime fiction, too, dear Margot! 😉

    • It is certainly true, Andrè, that many authors include children as characters, but do not develop them in enough depth for them to be sidekicks. It’s difficult to do the work required to create that sort of character.

      • A.M. Pietroschek

        Sometimes it is an ego problem. Roleplayers are much more used to teaming-up to reach a goal than authors seem to be. My idea, like the traditional result of ‘The path less traveled’, is that offering someone more skilled a chance to joint-venture. Saying no is legitimate, but I found many authors get stuck due their own ‘No’, so I can’t excuse, nor explain, it all via my own mea culpa…

        You set high standards via your work, and you show exceptional strength of character and versatility, especially, when reminded by cliche academics. Shame on those who deny or fail to be inspired by it.

  4. Other than the Flavia de Luce series, I have not read much that features children as sleuths or sidekicks. I have only read the first novel in Ellis Peters’ Inspector Felse series, and that was a while back, but I remember reading that his son Dominic gets involved in some of the investigations.

    • Oh, I need to dip in to that Ellis Peters series, Tracy! I know her Cadfael series, but not that one. It’s a good example, though, of what I had in mind with this post, so thanks for the reminder of it.

  5. Pingback: I Was Just a Kid, They All Called Me ‘Sidekick.’ | e. michael helms

  6. The only books that come to mind at the moment deal with the youngsters being the detective and not really helping out an adult such as the young Sherlock Holmes. It’s good that authors try to use a young sidekick from time to time because in real life I would think a youngster (or teenager) would be curious and get involved whether the adult wanted them to or not. Another great topic, Margot.

    Thoughts in Progress
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    • Thanks, Mason. I think you have a very well-taken point about the nature of most young people and teens. They’re curious, especially about something like a murder mystery. It’s not surprising, then, that they’d want to get involved.

  7. The first thing that popped into my head was Albert from the Tommy and Tuppence series. 🙂 Great post! 🙂

  8. I read a friend’s book, Will O’ the Wisp, which features a sixteen-year-old girl protagonist. The author is a man, but you’d never know it by his characterization of this young girl. Impressive indeed.

  9. Thanks for the shoutout Margot, and you made a great post out of the topic. I read a couple of books by a 1950s author, Max Murray, and he had some very convincing schoolboy characters who helped out with the investigations – they were given excellent conversations.

    • It’s a pleasure to plug your blog, Moira, and thanks for the inspiration. Thanks also for mentioning Murray’s work. Interesting you’d mention the conversations, too. I think that’s really hard to get right, actually: the cadence and rhythms of young people’s language.

  10. kathyd

    Well, there is the Nancy Drew series many of us read when we were teens or pre-teens. I certainly did.
    I have not yet read any of the Flavia de Luce series, but am tempted. The one pre-teen who is curious and asks questions, but doesn’t solve a crime is the delightful Gwenni Morgan in Welsh author Mari Strachan’s book, “The Earth Hums in B-Flat.” Wonderful book about a pre-teen who is questioning much she observes around her.

    • There are definitely great series, Kathy, in which young people are sleuths. And both Nancy Drew and Gwenni Morgan are great examples. And I do recommend Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels. They really are excellent, I think.

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