07 February 2024

The Name of the Beast


I just want to make a weird little observation about that group of characters Earl Emerson once eloquently described as the Sociopathic Sidekicks (SS).  These are the men (I don't know of any female versions) who assist the hero (often a private eye) by being more vicious and less ethical than he is.  

Let's say there is a villain who keeps hiring thugs to kill our hero but whenever he is warned off promises to stop.  Then he does it again.  Hero Dude, with his firm code of ethics, can't kill the bad guy if the bad guy is promising  not to be a threat.  So the sidekick, untroubled by such ethical dilemmas, solves the problem with a well-placed bullet.

That exact scenario played out in a novel by Robert Parker, with the hero being Spenser and the sidekick being HAWK, who had made his first appearance in the novel Promised Land (1977).  Hawk is the earliest example of an SS I am aware of.  

In 1987 Robert Crais introduced private eye Elvis Cole in The Monkey's Raincoat. And faithfully at the P.I.'s side was ex-Marine, ex-cop, Joe PIKE.

Then Walter Mosley introduced MOUSE in Devil in a Blue Dress (1990).  He is Easy Rawlins' best friend, but so violent he even scares Easy.

I'm not sure in which of his novels about private eye Thomas Black the aforementioned Earl Emerson introduced SNAKE, but it was no later than The
Portland Laugher
(1994).  This guy varies from the others I mention here because  he seems more like a parody of the stereotype.  Instead of helping Thomas out of trouble Snake's assistance usually makes things worse and he ends up needing to be rescued..

I bring all this up because I am reading S.A. Cosby's first novel (and if you haven't discovered Cosby, my word, jump on the train, the guy is brilliant.)  In My Darkest Prayer, Nathan Wayfinder gets help from a gunhappy pal named (wait for it) SKUNK.

So there's my question.  Why are so many sociopathic sidekicks known (and in many cases only known) by monosyllabic animal names? 


  1. I don't know, but the earliest equivalent to the Beast - although more humorous - that I ran across was back when I was a kid, reading Leslie Charteris' The Saint novels / stories: Hoppy Uniatz, veteran of the New York City Prohibition era mob world, dumb as a stump but 100% loyal and positively eager to crudely thump or shoot anyone that got out of line without all the witty banter the Saint went through first. He usually is just called Hoppy, which makes me wonder how much cocaine he was doing...
    Meanwhile, I admit to a deep, dark fondness for Hawk. But Mouse scares me.

  2. One of my favorite SSs, but one who lacks the animal nickname is Win, alias Windsor Horne Lockwood III, in Harlan Coben's novels about Myron Bolitar. The custom is to have SSs come from underprivileged backgrounds (presumably to explain their behavior) but Win is a wealthy WASP.

  3. Rob, you beat me to it. I was going to suggest Win as one of the best examples of an SS. He's one of those things I always looked forward to in the early Myron Bolitar novels. One of the most unique fictional characters ever created, part good guy and part bad guy, totally without a conscience or moral compass.

    1. I gave up on the Bolitar novels when they turned into suspense instead of mystery. My favorite big with Win is once when he was in a particularly bad mood he kidnapped a child killer who no one could convict and tortured him until he called the cops and confessed. Good guy? Bad guy? A real antihero.

  4. It's quite a ploy, isn't it? Hero can remain a hero, but get all the dirty work done by someone else. I've never actually thought of it before, but very clever. I used it, I realize now, in The B-Team. Del's sidekick Ritz rides a Ducati and takes out the bad guys in unexpected ways - even unexpected to Del! So there's maybe your first example of a female duo?

  5. Brava for egalitarian plot devices!


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