In any group, there are two different sorts of authority, or perhaps power would be the better term. There are those who have official authority, and those ‘behind the scenes’ who actually get things done. In real life, if you want to make a sale to a major business client, one of your most important tasks is to get that person’s assistant on your side. That’s the person who screens visitors, makes most of the day-to-day decisions, and often persuades the boss to do (or not do) something. A wise authority figure listens to, respects and depends on those ‘behind the scenes’ people without becoming too easy to manipulate (that’s another topic in and of itself!).
There are plenty such characters in crime fiction. They may have modest titles and unassuming job descriptions, but everyone knows that they are the ones whose opinions matter. They’re the ones who get things done.
One such character is Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin. Goodwin is officially an employee of private investigator Nero Wolfe. But anyone who knows this series also knows that Wolfe hardly has all of the power in that relationship. In fact, it’s hard at times to say who really runs this detective agency. While Wolfe certainly directs Goodwin (and the other investigators who work for him), anyone who wants to see Wolfe generally has to go through Goodwin. And although Goodwin is supposed to do what Wolfe says (and frequently does), he’s very much his own man, and does quite a lot of work on their cases. He respects Wolfe’s brilliance, but he has no particular reverence for his boss. And he’s not above manipulating situations to get Wolfe to do what he wants. It’s actually a very interesting dynamic.
So is the relationship between Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and his secretary, Felicity Lemon. Miss Lemon is frighteningly efficient and competent at her job. That, in fact, is one of the reasons for which Poirot hired her. On the one hand, she takes his business telephone calls, answers his letters and so on. In that sense, she does as he asks her to do, and usually does so immediately. On the other hand, she has considerable authority and power of her own. Poirot depends on her quite a lot, and pays attention to what she says. This is how Christie expresses it in the short story The Nemean Lion:
‘He trusted Miss Lemon. She was a woman without imagination, but she had an instinct. Anything that she mentioned as worth consideration usually was worth consideration.’
Poirot knows that although he’s the boss, he can’t do his job without an efficient secretary, and he has learned to respect Miss Lemon.
Fans of Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series will know that the real power in the Venice questura doesn’t belong to Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta. It belongs to his assistant, Signorina Elettra Zorzi. Anyone who wants to do business with the questura has to meet with her approval. And everyone who works at the questura, including Brunetti, knows that Signorina Elettra is both an indispensable ally and a formidable opponent. If she wants something to happen, it will happen. If she opposes something, it will stop happening, or won’t happen in the first place. The easiest and most efficient way to get anything done is to enlist Signorina Elettra’s cooperation right from the start.
Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire may be the sheriff of fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming, but he knows very well that that doesn’t mean he’s all-powerful. For one thing, his position is an elected one. For another, there’s Ruby, his dispatcher/secretary. Ruby has a kind heart, and genuinely cares about people. But she is plain-spoken and direct, and everyone knows better than to take her for granted or ignore what she says. The sheriff’s office is run in the way she wants it to be run; and even Longmire has learned to obey her on certain things. He knows how dependent he is on her to keep the office running smoothly, and to make sure that he can do his job. And, since she knows everyone, he also knows how valuable she is as an important source of information. She’s not above manipulating situations, either, if she needs to do that, and she usually turns out to be right.
And then there’s Lynda Wilcox’s Verity Long. She is researcher and secretary to famous crime writer Kathleen ‘K.D.’ Davenport. One of her jobs, for instance, is to get information on past true crimes, and provide those details to her boss. Then Davenport adapts those facts to inspire her novels. Davenport is the one with the name recognition and the best-seller income. But it’s Long who does a great deal of the ‘leg work’ and the research. She’s also often a sounding board for her boss’ ideas. Like the relationship between Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, the relationship between Davenport and Long is an interesting dynamic. On the one hand, Davenport is bright, quick-thinking and a skilled writer. She’s no figurehead, if I may put it that way. On the other, it’s Long who provides the background information, prepares everything for publication, and deals with the myriad demands on Davenport’s time. The two really do depend on each other, and each one knows it.
One of the more interesting cases of this sort of ‘power behind the throne’ is in the work of Hilary Mantel. Her three-book Wolf Hall trilogy is a fictional retelling of the story of Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to King Henry VIII. Those with an interest in history will know that Cromwell’s life shows both the power that ministers and other assistants can have, and their vulnerability. At the height of his authority, Cromwell was said to have done much to move the Reformation forward, especially behind the scenes. The king depended quite a lot on Cromwell’s ability to manipulate situations; and he certainly got and kept quite a lot of power. But as it turned out, he was also vulnerable. He was executed in 1540, after he lost the king’s good will.
Most of the time, those who get things done ‘behind the scenes’ don’t face execution. But they do have a lot more responsibility and authority than it may seem at first glance. And they can add much to a novel or series.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s It Takes Two.