Sidekicks have a really interesting set of roles in crime fiction. On the one hand, crime fiction readers want their sidekicks to be fleshed out as characters. And that means letting the reader know some things about them. On the other hand, part of the purpose of a sidekick is to support the main character. That means the sidekick doesn’t have as much ‘air time,’ and perhaps doesn’t feature as much. It’s not easy to balance those two things, but when it’s done well, the sidekick can be an interesting character, even if that person doesn’t ‘star.’
For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes has Dr. Watson. It’s Holmes who features most in the stories, but that doesn’t mean Watson is without personality or interest as a character. We don’t see a lot of his home life, but we know he’s married (check The Sign of the Four for that). We also know that he’s a qualified doctor who has his own patients, surgery schedule, and so on. And in The Hound of the Baskervilles, he’s the one who does quite a bit of the sleuthing. He may be quite impressed with Holmes’ brilliance, but he doesn’t always agree with Holmes. He doesn’t like Holmes’ drug habit, and he’s not thrilled with Holmes’ lack of tidiness. He’s got his own personality, even though it’s Holmes who’s the main character in the stories.
We could say the same about Agatha Christie’s Captain Hastings. He’s the sidekick to Hercule Poirot, and it’s Poirot who solves cases and makes sense of the clues. Hastings himself would tell you Poirot is a skilled detective. But that doesn’t mean Hastings doesn’t have his own personality and views. Over the course of the books and stories featuring Poirot, we learn some things about Hastings, too. He’s married (check The Murder on the Links for that). He’s a graduate of Eton (Dumb Witness/Poirot Loses a Client). Most of all, Christie portrays him as a very English gentleman. He doesn’t always agree with Poirot, but Poirot finds his way of thinking extremely valuable. Hastings may not have Poirot’s detective skills, but he’s a smart, educated man with a distinctive character.
Colin Dexter’s Sergeant Lewis is sidekick to Inspector Morse. On the one hand, Morse is the protagonist. He’s the one in charge of the cases they solve, and so on. And Morse is a brilliant detective. Lewis knows his boss is very skilled, even if he is sometimes…difficult. Lewis doesn’t get as much attention as Morse does, but that doesn’t mean that he’s not a solid character on his own. He knows police policy and procedure better than Morse does, and he’s not above reprimanding Morse when it’s necessary. He may have to defer to his boss at times, but he thinks for himself. We know a little about him, too. He’s married, more or less happily. He likes eggs and chips for dinner. He’s not highly educated, but he’s a smart man. His character isn’t the main attraction, so to speak, but it’s fleshed out.
Martha Grimes’ Inspector (later Superintendent) Richard Jury is the main protagonist of her series. He’s a very good detective who has a way of using clues to get to the truth of a case. His sidekick, Melrose Plant, is a friend of his. Plant isn’t a copper; he’s a ‘blueblood’ who gave up his title, and who prefers to live a less celebrated life. Plant may not be the ‘star,’ but he’s no paper cutout character. He’s got a solid sense of wit, and there are some funny scenes between Plant and his Aunt Agatha. He’s smart and observant, and there are some situations where he’s better able to get information than his boss would be. Since he’s not a police officer, Plant can more easily earn the trust of people who’d rather not talk to the police. He’s an interesting character in his own right, and he adds to the Jury series.
Geraldine Evans’ Joe Rafferty is an Essex police detective. He’s the main character in the series, and although he goes in the wrong direction sometimes, he’s a good copper and he does his job well. His sidekick, Sergeant Dafyd Llewellyn, couldn’t be more different from Rafferty. Where Rafferty can be spur-of-the-moment, Llewellyn is a planner. Rafferty isn’t particularly educated, but his sergeant is. Rafferty is much more verbal than Llewellyn is, too. The stories are told from Rafferty’s point of view, and as the series goes on, we learn about him. He’s got a large Irish family who have a habit of needing his help getting out of trouble. His mother is always trying to match him up with an eligible ‘nice girl,’ but Rafferty shies away from marriage, at least in the first novels of the series. What’s interesting about these novels is that, although the stories aren’t told from Llewellyn’s point of view, we do learn plenty about him. He’s Welsh and comes from a smaller family. He enjoys literature and he’s much more domestically inclined than his boss is. He has all sorts of ways to convey what he’s thinking, too, even if he doesn’t say a word. Rafferty may be the protagonist here, but Llewellyn has his own strength as a character.
There are other characters, too, that I honestly hesitate to call sidekicks, because the stories are as much theirs as anyone else. I’m thinking for instance of Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin and Reginald Hill’s Peter Pascoe. That’s why I haven’t really discussed them here. But if you consider them sidekicks, then certainly they play important roles in the stories.
And that’s the thing. Authors need to decide how much of a role their sidekicks will play. Well written sidekicks usually don’t play lead roles in stories. But they have their own personalities. They can be interesting in their own right, and they add much to stories.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lin-Manual Miranda’s Right Hand Man.
12 thoughts on “I’m Going to Need a Right Hand Man*”
Watson is of course THE sidekick for me. In fact I love Watson so much, I almost think of Holmes as being Watson’s sidekick rather than the other way around! Did you get the Lewis series in America? It was interesting to see him move from being Morse’s sidekick to becoming the main character with a sidekick of his own. Unfortunately the actor who played Lewis’s sidekick has now become a kind of nutty politician in real life – or at least he thinks he’s a politician. Not sure the voters agree… 😉
Watson is a great sidekick, isn’t he, FictionFan? I can see why he’s tops on your list. He’s certainly more sympathetic in his way than Holmes is. You feel you can relate to him, even though Holmes is the brilliant detective. I’ve always been glad that ACD allowed Watson at least some opportunities to play a lead role. I haven’t seen a lot of Lewis, but what I’ve seen I’ve liked. And you know…. some actors should not be politicians…
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Great post Margot! I love a good detective/sidekick combo, and I guess Holmes and Watson set the template for that! Doesn’t always have to be quite in that format – I like an ensemble cast as in McBain for example. But Holmes/Watson, Poirot/Hastings. Wimsey/Bunter – all brilliant!!!
Thanks, KBR! There really are some great pairings in the genre, aren’t there? And, yes, Holmes/Watson set the template. It’s interesting you mention ensemble casts; I think McBain did that better than most, so it’s good to hear you like that series. And thanks for the reminder of Wimsey/Bunter – another terrific pair!
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Oh gosh, who doesn’t love a great boss/sidekick relationship! I think my first introduction to that was The Man From Uncle in the sixties with Napolean Solo and Illya Kuryakin. Oh, how I adored those two. Poirot and Hastings are two of my favourite literary pairs but Hastings wasn’t actually in that many of the books was he? Morse and Lewis were great favourites and also Lewis and Hathaway. I always think it’s amusing when sometimes the sidekick becomes more popular than the boss.
Goodness, Cathy I’d not thought about The Man From U.N.C.L.E., but that was a great boss/sidekick relationship. I’m glad you mentioned it. And of course, Hastings and Poirot are a classic combination. He’s in several of the novels, but I think perhaps more in the short stories? At any rate, I do love that combination. And as far as Lewis goes, I thought it was really interesting how Lewis went from being sidekick to being boss. That’s not always easy to do.
I agree with your that neither Archie Goodwin nor Peter Pascoe could be considered a sidekick, especially Archie. I probably would not have been so enthusiastic about the Nero Wolfe series if the focus had been mostly on Wolfe.
The only series I can think of to add is the Chet and Bernie series by Spencer Quinn. Bernie the dog would be the sidekick of course and he does narrate the story. I have only read one of those, Dog On It. What do you think? Does Bernie qualify as a sidekick?
Oh, that’s an interesting question, Tracy, about Bernie. If an animal can count as a sidekick, well, then Bernie certainly can count as a sidekick. Hmm….that’s a really thought-provoking question….
As for Archie? I agree that the Nero Wolfe series would not be the same, at all, if it weren’t for Archie. He adds so much to the series, I think.
There are some instances where the sidekicks get so popular that they become breakout characters. Right now I can think of Popeye the sailor man who wasn’t exactly a sidekick but the comic was supposed to revolve around Castor Oyl before he stole the spotlight. Great article, and so well researched too.
Thank you, OP. And thanks for mentioning Castor Oyl and Popeye. So many people think of Popeye as the ‘star’ that it’s easy to forget he wasn’t really always the star. And the creators were wise to see that people wanted more of Popeye. He did have a strong character, so I can see the appeal.
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Interesting popst Margot. I think sidekicks have been replaced by partners. Most of the examples of sidekicks involve characters created well into the past. I think there are writing opportunities for new sidekicks.
That’s a really interesting point, Bill. There are some sidekicks in some cosy mystery series, but not a lot in other sub-genres. There are definitely possibilities there.