One 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.