21 May 2021

The Psycho Sidekick


(C) 1985 ABC

Back in the day, Robert B. Parker introduced us to Hawk, a mysterious ex-mercenary who made split decisions in morally ambiguous situations. In his earliest appearances, his appeal came from being the wildcard. Could Spenser trust him? Did he need someone like Hawk to do what his personal code would not permit?

In terms of the story Promised Land and the next few follow-ups, the answer is yes. He's a wildcard. He's not on Spenser's side. His priorities merely coincide with his. Once the series's initial run ended, however, Hawk became a set piece, a witty sidekick to add irreverence to Spenser's snappy patter. But Parker had left his mark on the PI genre. Now everyone had to have a sidekick, most notably, Dennis Lehane's Kenzie and Genaro series with sociopath Bubba Rugowski. Robert Crais managed to raise the game with this type of character in Joe Pike, the stoic ex-soldier partner of his daffy Elvis Cole.

While Pike is a great read, I often wonder if the archetype was even necessary. When I began writing, I made it a point to avoid the psycho sidekick. To me, the PI was a loner. He or she choose that life because they really don't want many connections tying them down. Originally, this was narrative. The Continental Op traveled everywhere. Philip Marlowe had to be a singular presence in his cases. Perhaps the best example of all comes from Ross McDonald. McDonald described Lew Archer as a man who would disappear if he turned sideways.

Of course, readers demand more than a guy in a trench coat and fedora slinking down back alleys. Spenser is a war veteran, ex-cop, and former boxer. Kinsey Milhonne might cherish her solitude, but her elderly landlord has a crush on her, and the Hungarian diner owner insists on feeding her. 

Hawk added a certain dark element to the Spenser series in its heyday. Unfortunately, he became a rote character others used because that's what Robert Parker used. When he or she is fleshed out, it works very well. Alas, there's a bad tendency to make them one of those X-Men that show up in the Deadpool movies with no Ryan Reynolds to play off of them.


  1. Good point. I enjoyed Hawk's character. What I hated in the Spenser series was Susan Silverman - not because I objected to him having a love interest, but to take her seriously as a psychologist when she was consistently shown to have no understanding or comprehension of the Hawk/Spenser bond, always asking, in various wordings, "But how do you know you can trust each other?" It was really clumsy exposition in my opinion. Could not believe it for a second.

  2. In one of Parker's novels (Early Autumn?) a bad guy keeps trying to kill Spenser, gets caught, and promises not to do it again. Then he does it again. Spenser's code leaves him with no way to deal with such a person. Hawk just shoots him in the head, solving the dilemma. These characters are often from hard backgrounds, giving a possible explanation/excuse for their behavior, but Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar has an unusual sidekick: Win Horne III, a wealthy WASP who loves beating up bullies. Earl Emerson coined my favorite term for Horne/Bubba/Pike characters: the Sociopathic Sidekick, or SS. His Thomas Black novels feature a sidekick named Snake who may be intended as a satire on the SS. Snake has the necessary lack of ethics but Black spends more time rescuing him than the other way around.

  3. I watched only a few of the television series (no TV, remember?), but I like Hawk much better than Spenser, partly because I didn't fully buy into the actor who played Spenser. It makes me think of the Man from UNCLE series, where I liked Illya Kuryakin far more than Napoleon Solo. Solo posed… Kuryakin got the work done.

    When it comes to sole protagonists, The Continental Op remains my favorite. Hell, we still don't know his name.

  4. I find the psycho sidekick way too useful. If Spenser can't kill the guy, Hawk'll do it for him, easy peasy, and it's no skin off Spenser's nose nor does it have to trouble his conscience, because Hawk did it. I read a lot of the Spenser novels, and I got tired of Spenser's conscience leaving the hard decisions up to Hawk. Own up to your own deeds, your own desires. Having it done by someone else doesn't leave you with clean hands.


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