I recently read the much-lauded Wash This Blood Clean From My Hands, by French author Fred Vargas, and like many others found it quirky and engaging. Her deft writing left me happy to have found another series character to follow: Commissaire Adamsberg. But that's not what this post is about. I've decided that others do a lot better job with reviews than I do, and I hate laboring over my shallow insights only to find later that I've echoed what everybody else said a long time before. (And yes, I can hear you saying: "But that's never stopped you before." True enough. Nor will it now.)
So, short version: Wash This Blood is a good book. Buy it. But for all the talk about it being "eccentric" or even "kooky," it does share one key device with nearly all other detective fiction: the sidekick. Adamsberg's reliance on gut instinct and intuition is sharply defined by the hard-nosed, scientific approach of his second in command, Capitaine Adrien Danglard. You can see why. Without Danglard as a foil, Adamsberg might become nothing more than an oddball talking to himself.
But it has always been thus, hasn't it? Beginning with Conan Doyle's Dr. Watson, the sidekick has proven indispensable as a plot device, fulfilling so many functions that it's hard to imagine, even all these years later, a successful detective story without one.
Plot exposition is the first of these functions: Through repartee with the often dim and always questioning sidekick, key facts of the case are established and key clues are planted. Think if Conan Doyle had been forced to show Holmes' leaps of logic as interior monologue only. I've tried something like that, and it isn't pretty. So my own series character has a sidekick too.
Just as important, I think, is the way in which a sidekick helps define character. Would Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe have been so memorable without Archie Goodwin to reflect his preening, petulant ways? Similarly, Hercule Poirot's vanity and obsession with neatness come across nicely through the amused observations of his friend Captain Hastings. In a more recent example, lawless boozer Clete Purcell clearly defines the moral struggle that is so central to James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux.
Finally, there's comic relief. Robicheaux's grim soul-searching would get pretty tedious without the occasional outrageous antics of Purcell.
The list is as vast as the genre: Dashiell Hammett's Nick Charles had Nora; Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason had Della Street. Today, there's Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus and Siobhan Clark. Even Lawrence Block's loner assassin Keller has a sidekick of sorts in Dot, his laconic agent. But of course if we tried to list them all, we'd be here all night.
Maybe it would be more fun to think of a fictional detective who doesn't have a recurring sidekick. Do any come to mind?