Sunday, November 11, 2007

Sleuths are only as good as their sidekicks

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?


J. Kingston Pierce said...

How about Bernie Gunther (THE ONE FROM THE OTHER, by Philip Kerr), Inspector Ian Rutledge (THE PALE HORSE, by Charles Todd), and Jack Liffey (THE DARK STREETS, by John Shannon)? If we go back further, of course, we find lots of protagonists without sidekicks--Lew Archer, Philip Marlowe, Jacob Asch, etc. This conviction that every detective must have a sidekick has become more evident over the last 20 years.


Dave K. said...

I'd forgotten about Philip Kerr's excellent character. Thanks for the reminder. The others I haven't read. It's possible that the surfeit of sidekicks reflects my reading biases more than the state of the art of crime fiction.

Maxine said...

Marlowe didn't have a sidekick did he? And my memory is so rubbish -- Nick and Nora Charles, yes, but the guy in the Dain Curse (I think my favourite Hammet) didn't have a sidekick did he? I may have forgotten in the mists of time.

More recently, the books I have read do feature sidekicks or groups -- eg Henning Mankell's Wallender has a close group, as does Camilleri's Montalbano (though Mimi is the closest to a sidekick of them all). But Siri in Coroner's Lunch is pretty much a one-man operation, I think, though he does have various associates who assist. Jack Irish and other Peter Temple heroes pretty much do their own thing also, as does Jack Reacher (Lee Child). But you are right, I can think of more detectives with sidekicks than I can loners.

Dave K. said...

I've only read one thing featuring Jack Reacher -- a short story in the anthology Thriller. It wasn't bad. How do the books hold up?

Yes, Siri does appear to go it alone, although I expect we may see more of the Vietnamese detective Nguyen Hong. And Siri's friend Civilai veers close to the definition of sidekick, in the way he helps define the main character, but I'll concede the point.

Peter said...

I'm too thick-skulled to think of any sidekick-less protagonists at the moment. The best I can come up with are people like Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor, who has a sort-of sidekick in The Magdalen Martyrs who dies early on.

Your question about sidekicks was especially apt considering the book that spurred it. The opening chapter of Wash This Blood ... is all Adamsberg and Danglard. Vargas is staking her claim to the reader's attention on the interplay between the two characters.

Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri and Peter Temple's Jack Irish (may their tribes increase!) fall into the sort-of category. Each lacks formal assistants, but each also has helpers who contribute directly and indirectly to the investigations: Dtui, Phosy et al. in Cotterill, Harry Strang and Conin Temple. They are sidekicks in all but name.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Dave K. said...

This subject has yielded an insight into why my own novel is not flowing effortlessly onto the screen: No sidekick! Hadn't thought about that before. I'm also starting to regret going with the first person viewpoint.

Peter said...

Yeah, throw in a sidekick, and see what happens. What do you think such a character would add that the story lacks now?
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Peter said...

Yikes, make that "Cam," and not "Con," in Peter Temple.

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