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Have you ever thought much about sidekicks? I hadn’t, until recently.

In films and television, sidekicks are the ones who usually aren’t as good-looking as the hero, never or almost never get the girl or guy, and never get the glory.  Think about it.  There’s the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Roy Rogers and Gabby Hayes, Lucy and Ethel.  Am I right?

In mystery novels, things were pretty much the same.  There’s Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, C. Auguste Dupin and Poe’s nameless narrator, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.  In the last case there’s a bit more equality, but even though Archie is younger, better-looking, and as narrator could emphasize his importance in the case, he’s always a step behind Wolfe.  Yes, in these novels Archie has the girl, but Lily Rowan is more like arm candy than a true love interest, always available to go dancing or have dinner at Rusterman’s, but that’s all.

In earlier books the sidekicks usually were subordinate in every way to the detective, as I mentioned above, especially when it came to who was the toughest guy in the room.  But, interestingly, the sidekick’s role has changed over the years.  I think this began with Spenser and Hawk.  Spenser certainly is tough and knows his way around criminals and low-lifes, but he has a moral center.  Enter Hawk.  When we first meet him, he’s a killer for hire.  And although he’s mellowed in the course of the novels, he still behaves in ways that Spenser can’t or won’t.  Spenser can do breaking and entering, but Hawk can do breaking bones.  That’s why Spenser needs him.

And here’s another facet of the new breed of sidekick.  There was a similarity between the roles of Spenser and Hawk and Elvis Cole and Joe Pike.  Pike’s conscience, like his eyes behind dark sunglasses, is hidden.  There are, or were, things that Cole didn’t do, but Pike did.  Now, however, that Pike has moved on to his own series, he, like Hawk, has gotten softer and isn’t so quick on the trigger.  If Pike is going to be the new hero, he can’t behave like the old sidekick.

We know that certain things, unpleasant and illegal things, may have to be done in order to solve a crime. But we don’t seem to want our hero, and it’s always a hero, not a heroine, to do them.  We don’t want his hands to be so dirty that they can’t be cleaned.  That’s apparently what his sidekick is for.

So what does this say about us as readers of detective novels?


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