Showing posts with label sidekicks. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sidekicks. Show all posts

11 May 2020

The Sidekick Dilemma


The D Case by Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini presents an intriguing bibliophile premise. They bring the great fictional detectives together at a consortium in Rome to re-read, analyze, and eventually solve the unfinished Charles Dickens novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

During the course of the action, we see Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Arsene Lupin, Father Brown, Inspector Maigret, Pirfory Petrovich from Crime & Punishment, Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, Nero Wolfe, and a few others. The only major sleuths I don't remember seeing are Ellery Queen and the cops of the 87th Precinct.

I remembered my introduction to many of these characters from my parents' bookshelves and coffee table. My mother loved Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Rex Stout. I read all the existing Hardy Boys books between my tenth and eleventh birthday and receieved The Complete Sherlock Holmes for my twelfth birthday. I still have that book. As you can see, the binding is held together by duct tape.



Even at an early age, my reading ear was well-developed and I had definite likes and dislikes. I never liked Agatha Christie much, and I know now that it was because her dialogue sounded wooden and her characters felt like cardboard. The women were all either 12-year-old virgins or latent doms. I liked the early Holmes stories, but felt they went downhill after he went over the Reichenbach Falls, probably because Conan Doyle himself lost his enthusiasm. I discovered Nero Wolfe when I was 12 or 13, and always liked those books more. Now I know that Rex Stout was also from the Midwest, so our rhythms were similar.

Reading The D Case showed me something else that I'd never thought about. Another reason I never cared much for Poirot or Holmes is that Hastings and Watson always came across as so profoundly dull. They were the stereotypical stolid Englishmen with no imagination or creativity, and they bored the hell out of me. They spent page after page in arias extolling the brilliance of their companions, but did little else for the stories. Well, Watson had his service revolver. But they were so dull they weakened their heroes.

It's pretty much axiomatic that a hero gains his stature from the strength of his antagonist. A great villain demands a great hero. But if the people trying to solve the case can barely dress themselves, the guy solving that crime only needs to be able to tie his shoes.

All the cops in the 87th precinct were good detectives who spoke human dialogue and had real-life problems. Ditto Mrlowe and Archer. Nero Wolfe was an insufferable egomaniac like Poirot, but Archie Goodwin, Saul Panzer, and the other operatives were sharp investigators in their own right, and Archie only  put up with so much of Wolfe's attitude before calling him out on it. I always liked Wolfe more because he really did have to be better than Archie and the Cops. Those cops were a little narrow-minded, but they weren't cretins like Lestrade.

Look at the detectives who had to carry the load themselves without a shuffling minion to look up to them. My current favorites include Lehane's Kenzie and Gennaro (now retired), Don Winslow's Boone Daniels, and Karin Slaughter's Will Trent, who has to cope with his dyslexia. All these characters are solid investigators with capable help and no fanboys in sight.

Call me elitist, but I like them a lot better.

22 March 2016

Dynamic Duos - Part Two


by Barb Goffman and Sherry Harris

Songwriter Paul Simon may be an island, but for many authors we know, writing works better when people work together. Whether it comes from an editor or a critique group, feedback and brainstorming can be a hugely important part of writing. They also can be an important part of sleuthing. Characters usually need feedback as they try to figure out whodunit, which is one reason why the sidekick character is so prevalent in crime fiction.

Yesterday on the Wicked Cozy Authors blog, author Sherry Harris and I discussed dynamic duos in the writing process and how we've worked together. We also talked about dynamic duos in fiction, including my character Job and his unusual sidekick, God, from my story "The Lord is My Shamus" (available in my collection, Don't Get Mad, Get Even). Sound interesting? Pop on over to the other blog by clicking here. But then come back, because now we're going to wade into Sherry's fictional duos and then discuss some of our personal favorites by other authors.


Sherry, in your books, your main character, amateur sleuth Sarah Winston, has two friends who serve as her partner, but they both play very different roles. Can you talk a little about Carol and Stella?

Sherry: Sarah has known Carol for twenty years. They met right after Sarah met her now ex-husband, and they bonded as military wives. Fast forward to the present, and they've ended up living in the same town, Ellington, Massachusetts. Carol is invested in Sarah and her complicated relationship with her ex. She likes going to yard sales with Sarah, and Sarah knows that Carol will always be on her side. It's this long-time friendship that has prompted Sarah to step in when Carol is accused of murder (The Longest Yard Sale), and it's why the two work so well together when Sarah needs to think things through. And Carol's the kind of friend who tosses her car keys to Sarah without hesitation when Sarah's running away in All Murders Final! (coming out from Kensington on April 26th).

Stella is a new friend and Sarah's landlady. She isn't judgmental, listens, and is thoughtful with her answers. Since Stella is also single, she's usually up for a last-minute adventure, whether it's going to a karaoke bar or heading out in the middle of a blizzard. Because Stella is a new friend, Sarah sometimes feels more comfortable doing things with her that she'd never do with Carol, simply because their friendship is built on different interests. As you pointed out recently, Barb, the three of them have never hung out together--that might be something for a future book.

Do you have a favorite duo in a series, Barb?

Barb: There are so many great ones, but a duo that jumps immediately to mind is Stephanie Plum and her friend Lula in Janet Evanovich's seminal series about a New Jersey bounty hunter. Lula is always up for anything (especially going through the drive-through at Cluck-in-a-Bucket). If
The book that started it all
Stephanie needs to go on a stakeout, Lula's there to serve as a second pair of eyes. If Stephanie needs to find and capture someone who skipped court, Lula's there to help with the takedown. And if Stephanie needs to eat a snack, Lula is definitely there to eat the leftovers, and then some. Having a fearless friend when you're a bounty hunter is awesome. And having a friend who's a hoot is great when you're the star of your own series--readers love humor. What about you, Sherry? Is there a duo that stands out to you?

Sherry: I love Stephanie and Lula too. Another interesting duo is in Chris Grabenstein's John Ceepak mysteries. (Chris, if you are out there, please, I'm begging you, write more!) (Barb here: Me too!) The duo in this series is John Ceepak and Danny Boyle. John is a West Point grad and military
The first John Ceepak mystery
veteran with a strict moral code that he won't deviate from. Danny is a part-time cop, part-time party boy. Their relationship starts out with John as the mentor, and Danny idolizes him. But Danny brings something to the relationship too--smarts and a zest for life. They both approach the world very differently, but ultimately they learn from each other.

Barb and I both love the relationship in Julia Spencer-Fleming's Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne mysteries. Here is a completely different way to approach a duo from our first two examples. Barb, what makes them work?

Barb: Chemistry. It's one of those rare things that's hard to teach how to do, but wow, does Julia Spencer-Fleming do it well. These two characters are so wonderful together. They start out as friends, a sexual tension grows over the series, and then as their lives change, their relationship changes and grows. (I'm being vague because I don't want to ruin things for anyone who hasn't read the series yet. Go forth and buy all the books right now. You won't be disappointed.) Russ is the local police chief. Clare is an Episcopal priest. They're fun characters to spend time with--not
We love this book!
preachy. They both care about people and their town and are willing to stick their necks out for others, and for each other.

Sherry, am I missing anything?

Sherry: I love that Clare was an army helicopter pilot before she became a priest. It adds another layer of depth to her character. Also that Russ is married--that dynamic--priest and married police chief--is brilliant. I wish I could think of something as interesting and pull it off like Julia does. The first book in the series, In the Bleak Midwinter, has one of the best opening lines ever written.

It's amazing to us how different each of these examples are, yet how well they all work. Readers, do you have a favorite fictional duo?

04 August 2012

Just for (Side) Kicks



by John M. Floyd


I watched--actually, rewatched--a movie the other night that made me think of a plot device that fiction writers often use: giving the hero a sidekick.  The movie is Rustler's Rhapsody, and its sole purpose is to poke fun at the traditional Western.  If you've seen it you'll know what I mean, about sidekicks, and if you haven't seen it I suggest you put it in your Netflix queue.  I'm not overly fond of the term LOL, but this movie will make you do it.  It'll even make you ROFL.

By the way, I said "giving the hero a sidekick."  The villain's sidekicks are usually called "henchmen," and the Oddjobs and Rosa Klebbs of the world deserve their own column (in fact, I gave them one, in the old Criminal Brief days).  A sidekick and a henchman do, however, sometimes serve the same purpose: each gives the author/director someone the boss can confide in, thus revealing needed information to the reader/viewer.  One of the differences is that if he's a henchman he usually dies, and usually does it earlier in the story than the boss does, in order to save the biggest confrontation until the end.

Note 1: I find it interesting that most fictional heroes and villains do have some kind of sidekick, whether it happens to be a friend, colleague, relative, employee, or spouse.  I can think of only a few bad guys who didn't; among them are Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter, and it might be argued that those two didn't need a lot of help in the villain department.

May the dark side of the Force be with you

The kind of hero-helpers I'd like to consider here, though, aren't along the lines of Dr. Watson, Friday, Tonto, Huck Finn, Kato, and Samwise Gamgee--or even Nora Charles.  The ones I'm talking about are the ones you wouldn't expect the hero to have.  The kind that come from the dark side, and in fact often reflect the protagonist's dark side.

I'm reminded of three of these lethal "weapons": Robert B. Parker's Hawk, Harlan Coben's Windsor Horne Lockwood III, and Robert Crais's Joe Pike.

Guardian angel

Hawk, Spenser's best friend and sparring partner, was introduced early in the series and served several purposes, including the aforementioned role as sounding-board to the hero.  He also saved Spenser's bacon on a regular basis and added a level of pure menace to Parker's already suspenseful plots.  But Hawk's biggest contribution to the series--and its success--was that he could do things that the hero's moral code would not allow the hero to do.

Here's what I mean.  I'm paraphrasing, but in one of the novels Spenser and Hawk had just had a shootout with the opposition, and one of the bad guys was lying there suffering but still alive.  Both of them knew they'd have to kill him or he'd come after them.  Spenser said something like "I can't kill somebody who's lying on the floor."  Hawk said, "Hell, I can," and shot him.

Note 2: Supposedly, Hawk's and Spenser's paths first crossed when a Boston crime lord hired Hawk to kill Spenser--but I suspect they really met at one of those conferences for People With No First Names. 

Me Myron, you Win

Another example is Windsor Horne Lockwood, the longtime friend of sports agent Myron Bolitar, in the series novels of Harlan Coben.  Like Hawk, Win is fiercely loyal and fiercely fierce; he thinks nothing of breaking the law, or of breaking the necks of anybody who stands in his way.  Myron (despite his name) is no wimp himself--he is, after all, the hero of the series--but Win is a killing machine with absolutely no conscience or scruples.  He can do things without blinking an eye that Myron would never be willing to do, even if he physically could--and thus Win allows us readers to meet our violence quota while we continue to like and admire the main character.

Win (again, like Hawk) is a complex and mysterious guy, and a flashy dresser as well.  He is, however, flashy in a different way: he's an aging-preppie corporate executive, a buttoned-down and pinstriped product of Old Money.  As such, Win is even more dangerous, because he doesn't look like a killer.

Not your average Joe

A third example that comes to mind is Joe Pike, from Robert Crais's novels featuring L.A. private eye Elvis Cole.  I think of Pike as occupying the middle ground between the other two sidekicks I've mentioned--he's neither as physically intimidating as Hawk or as unfeeling as Win.  But he's just as deadly.  And, once again, he steps in--usually unrequested, of course--anytime the situation demands the kind of ruthless and often illegal solutions that would violate Cole's sense of right and wrong.  Elvis Cole remains the hero with the strict code of honor; Joe Pike is the loose cannon who'll do anything to help his friend.  We wind up rooting for them both, but we have more respect for Cole.

Note 3: I've used the present tense in discussing Win and Pike since Coben's and Crais's series are ongoing, and I've used the past tense in discussing Hawk since Bob Parker passed away in 2010.  The good news is that my fellow Mississippian Ace Atkins has been chosen by the Parker estate to continue writing the Spenser novels, and I'm pleased to report that the first one (Lullaby) was excellent.  My only regret is that Ace didn't instruct Spenser to throw Susan Silverman over a cliff--but that's a subject for another day.

Seconds in command

Other "dark-side" assistants to protagonists are Bubba Rogowski (author Dennis Lehane), Clete Purcell (James Lee Burke), and Mouse Alexander (Walter Mosley).  I know I've left out plenty of them, but those top my personal list, or at least fit easily into slots alongside the ones I mentioned earlier.  If any of  you know of others, I'd be happy to add those to the roster.

Bottom line is, as long as there are heroes there will be sidekicks.  Their duties will always be (1) to help their bosses get out of trouble and (2) to help them look good to readers.

As writers, we know the second task is as important as the first.