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Monday is the first day of the spring term at BOLLI, the Brandeis Osher Lifelong Learning Institute program.  It will be my sixth time teaching a course on mystery novels, and this semester the title is WHODUNIT?:  A STUDY IN SIDEKICKS.

Frankly, I don’t usually think about sidekicks when I pick up a detective story.  The main focus, of course, is on the detective and not any assistant she/he may have.  But when I started to think about the subject a few months ago, I realized how many of my favorite authors have incorporated interesting, charismatic, funny, frightening, but always ultimately fascinating seconds-in-command.

I think the first sidekick that comes to most readers’ minds is Dr. John Watson, Sherlock Holmes’ colleague.  Of course, everyone knows that Holmes was the one who solved the crimes, but if you read the short stories and novels carefully you can see how much the good doctor contributed.  Sometimes it was his medical knowledge, sometimes his willingness to bring his gun along to a possibly dangerous encounter, sometimes simply his obvious admiration of his friend’s abilities, that made this twosome work.

So that’s where the course will begin, with THE SIGN OF THE FOUR, published in 1890.  It was a time of gaslight rather than electricity, mail and telegrams rather than email and cell phones, hansom cabs instead of cars, but the personalities and characteristics of Watson and Holmes still resonate with readers today.

Then we’ll jump into the twentieth century with THE LEAGUE OF FRIGHTENED MEN by Rex Stout, featuring the inimitable Archie Goodwin as Nero Wolfe’s assistant, secretary, “legs,” and all around pain-in-the neck.  This will be followed by PROMISED LAND by Robert B. Parker (Hawk and Spenser), I KNOW A SECRET by Tess Gerritsen (Maura Isles and Jane Rizzoli), THE WANTED by Robert Crais (Joe Pike and Elvis Cole), PROMISE  ME by Harlan Coben (Win Lockwood and Myron Bolitar), GHOST HERO by S. J. Rozan (Bill Smith and Lydia Chin), and A DRINK BEFORE THE WAR by Dennis Lehane (Angela Gennaro and Patrick Kenzie).

Some of the sidekicks in these books are more clearly secondary characters, with the major detective work done by the detectives.  But in other novels, there’s not such a clear demarcation, and the role of the sidekick is more important, both to the detective and to the book itself.

I invite you to read along with us and perhaps get a different perspective on what being the main character’s friend/partner/colleague means in detective fiction.  I promise it will be a fun trip.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.



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