Caroline: There’s a moment in Agatha Christie’s 1964 novel A Caribbean Mystery that I think about a lot. Miss Marple, generously sent on a luxury winter holiday to the island of St Honoré by her wealthy novelist nephew, has encountered what she believes to be a dastardly murder plot. Two people have died already, and if she does not act swiftly, more will follow. But she’s far away from home, among strangers. She realises that “here on this paradise of an island, she had none of her usual allies” who can assist her in saving the day. As an elderly and respectable lady of limited mobility and strength, she needs someone younger and stronger on whom she can rely for the more reckless and physical side of sleuthing. “Who will go for me? Whom shall I send?” she wonders.
What Miss Marple needs, you see, is a sidekick. A fundamental archetype of the classic whodunnit, sidekicks perform many functions in detective fiction, both in practical and narrative terms. But they don’t often get full credit for the vital role they play in making these stories ones that we enjoy again and again. As readers, we’re inclined to be dazzled by the brilliance of the central sleuth, and not think that hard about the supporting players who make it all possible.
But not today. For once, we’re going to put the sidekicks in the spotlight.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. In this episode, we’re going to take a closer look at the recurring characters who accompany our favourite sleuths on their adventures, and explore all the different ways that authors have used this device to enhance their mysteries.
Before we get into the episode proper, though, I just want to remind you that there are two opportunities to see a live episode of Shedunnit coming up in the next few months — I’ll be at the Dublin Podcast Festival on 15 November and the PodUK convention on 1 February 2020. Full details and tickets are available at shedunnitshow.com/events, and especially if you are wanting to come to the Dublin show I would recommend booking soon as it’s a small venue.
The detective’s sidekick is one of the fundamental building blocks of the classic whodunnit. Their exact station in life can vary, as can their precise relationship with the central sleuth. Authors really let their imaginations run wild when it comes to the sidekick’s special skills — some are combat experts, there to provide the muscle if the situation gets sticky, others are journalists, writers, lab technicians, butlers or barely-human quasi-mythical entities. What unites all of the sidekicks, though, is their role as a sounding board for the detective. They are present so that they can participate in the case, yes, but they’re also there to be told the story so that the reader can be told, too.
As is often the case with these embedded tropes of detective fiction, the most famous example actually appeared three or so decades before the advent of the so-called golden age of detective fiction after the first world war. I feel like I say this too often in these episodes, but it’s true — to understand what Christie, Marsh, Mitchell and the other top practitioners of this style were doing in the 1920s and 30s, you have to go back to Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t exactly invent the idea of the hero’s close friend participating in the story as a proxy for the reader, but he did refine and popularise it for detective fiction to the extent that the very name of his sidekick has become a widely-used shorthand for this type of character. Enter the Watson.
The thing about Dr Watson, though, is that he isn’t just a foil for Sherlock Holmes — a slightly plodding conventional intelligence included in order to show off Holmes’s uncanny brilliance to best effect, although he is partly that. Watson is also the narrator of nearly all of the Holmes stories and therefore the master of Conan Doyle’s meta narrative. Watson is writing up Holmes’s cases for public consumption and so his impressions heavily influence what ours can be. Of course, this is part of what makes the Holmes stories so enjoyable. Watson has a flair for the gothic and loves a dramatic twist. He lays out Holmes’s deductions as they become apparent to lesser mortals like John Watson (and by extension, we the reader) who can’t follow the lightening fast motion of his friend’s brain. As such, he provides the pacing and structure that make for a good plot. Can you imagine what a classic Sherlock Holmes story narrated by Sherlock Holmes would be like? I’m imagining something very brief, like: “I arrived at the scene of the crime, and it was immediately apparent to me who did it. It took me a few hours to prove it, but once I’d measured a few footprints and shoes the whole thing was wrapped up and I headed back to town to play my violin, leaving the boring bits to the police.”
As I said, Conan Doyle didn’t invent this “sidekick as narrator and narrator as writer” idea when it comes to detective fiction. That honour goes, I believe, to Edgar Allen Poe, who experimented with this in his Auguste Dupin stories back in the 1840s. Dupin’s exploits are related by an unnamed friend who accompanies him during his cases, and who, like Watson, writes about his experiences with the talented sleuth in the first person. For all that we are constantly told about the brilliance of Dupin’s mind (and Holmes’s, for that matter), we barely ever actually get to see inside it. Poe’s innovation in making the sidekick the narrator was a step on from the omniscient voice of eighteenth and nineteenth century realist fiction up to that point. The pleasure of the Dupin stories, as with the Holmes ones, is that the narrator is there to state the obvious and not find things out too quickly, so that we the reader can actually enjoy the progress of the story.
Literary critics love Poe and Conan Doyle for what it tells us about the development of the novel in the nineteenth century. There’s a whole subset of academic work devoted to what detective fiction can tell us about concepts like “narrativity” and layers of narration. I’ve cited a couple of the most interesting and readable studies in the show notes for this episode, so you can go and read more if that’s your kind of thing. If not, the key thing to note is that the sidekick is the glue that sticks the whole structure of the classic detective story together. Once you start to break it down properly, you realise how very complicated even the most apparently simple whodunnit is. There’s not one story but a minimum of two: the account of the crime, and then the account of the investigation into that crime, and sometimes other layers in between. The interleaving of these two principal narratives is controlled by the sidekick or Watson figure, and sometimes additional intertextual elements are introduced by the inclusion in the story of a diary, a letter or another form of direct statement from the criminal, relating their layer of the fiction in the first person. Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet is a good example of this last technique, where Watson’s account is interrupted at the end of part one for an extended reminiscence by the culprit.
When the sidekick’s narration is well written, the greatest trick here remains concealed. That is the way it plays with the balance of power — in the Conan Doyle or Poe model, the detective is meant to be all knowing and all powerful, yet the choices as to how they are described lies completely with their friendly narrator. We think of Watson or Dupin’s unnamed friend as the “sidekick”, imply that they are secondary or an adjunct to the principal character of the detective. But when it comes to the reader, it’s Watson who holds all the cards. He controls Sherlock Holmes’s image and reputation with the wider public and with the reader. I have my problems with the recent BBC adaptation Sherlock, but I do think the writers did a good job of conveying this see-sawing power dynamic between detective and sidekick — people who know Sherlock only from John’s blog are always commenting that they thought the famous sleuth would be taller in real life, or that they find him more impressive if he “wears the hat”. They are comparing the real life Sherlock with the image created by his sidekick, and finding him ever so slightly disappointing by comparison.
Watson, as the most famous sidekick of the nineteenth century, casts a long shadow into the twentieth and beyond. A.A. Milne makes this connection between the work of Conan Doyle and the detective novelists of the next generation very clear in his 1926 introduction to his only whodunnit, The Red House Mystery. Milne identifies himself as a passionate fan of detective stories, and then proceeds to set out his own particular preferences and rules for how they should be written. (I talk about this essay in more depth in episode 9 of this show, if you’re interested, which is all about the rules of detective fiction more generally.) “And now, what about a Watson?” Milne writes. “Are we to have a Watson? We are. Death to the author who keeps his unravelling for the last chapter, making all the other chapters but prologue to a five minute drama. This is no way to write a story. Let us know from chapter to chapter what the detective is thinking.” He goes on to use the verb “watsonize” to mean the opposite of soliloquise; that is to speak one’s thoughts aloud to a companion rather than without expectation that there are listeners present. Milne doesn’t have his “Watson” actually narrate the story, but with a couple of exceptions towards the end, he does use the sidekick character to make the progress of the investigation transparent to the reader.
As fast as I’ve been able to find out, this essay was published in April 1926, three months before Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd came out in June of the same year. I don’t know if Milne had somehow read an advance copy of Christie’s novel, which contains the most famous narrative twist of 1920s detective fiction, and which sees Poirot adopt an amateur sidekick in the conventional fashion before the whole thing is upended magnificiently. But he was certainly responding to a growing atmosphere of experimentation within the genre, which meant that Watsons couldn’t always be taken at face value in the way they can in Conan Doyle.
After the break: the sidekicks fight back.
Now that we have established the narrative history and functions of detective sidekicks, it’s time to take a look at the different ways that authors have created and subverted this trope. Just for the sake of ease, I have loosely grouped characters into five groups for the purposes of our examination and picked an emblematic example to talk about for each one. However, I freely acknowledge that my categories are a bit arbitrary and also that recurring characters move between them as they develop and change.
To start with, let’s consider sidekicks who are personal friends of the detective. This type of character is arguably truest to the John Watson archetype — they are not employed by the detective in any capacity, but are rather a social equal who voluntarily takes part in cases. I think the most recognisable golden age version of this dynamic is the one between Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings. Christie first introduced their relationship in her very first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which was published in 1920 although it is set several years earlier, during the First World War. Hastings, spending a month’s sick leave with some friends at a country house, runs into Poirot by chance in the village, where the retired police detective is living with some other Belgian refugees. Hastings introduces Poirot to his friends as “my old friend, Monsieur Poirot, whom I have not seen for years”. The two reignite their friendship, and in a subsequent book even briefly live together in a flat in London. As well as his narrative functions as a classic Watson, I think Hastings is also important for his essential upper class Englishness, offsetting Poirot’s performative “foreigner” status for potentially prejudiced clients and associates. Hastings was educated at Eton and served with distinction in the trenches. As such there are few English social situations where he is not welcome, and he can ease Poirot’s path as a result. It is worth remembering, though, that perception of this relationship can be influenced by the long running ITV Poirot TV adaptation, in which lots of stories were rewritten to include Hastings, even though he only appears in about half of the Poirot stories in Christie’s original versions, and he more often narrates short stories than he appears in full-length novels. I think the on screen chemistry between David Suchet and Hugh Fraser has a lot to do with Hastings’s reputation as Poirot’s principal sidekick. You might also look out for other classic Holmes-Watson esque dynamics in the work of Ngaio Marsh, where Roderick Alleyn has the journalist Nigel Bathgate in a similar role, or R. Austin Freeman Dr Thorndyke, who is usually assisted by his friend Christopher Jervis.
My next major category of sidekick is domestic servants. Poirot has one, of course, in the shape of his faithful valet George who occasionally assists as a sounding board or with a small amount of practical help. Peter Wimsey, more significantly perhaps, has the indefatigable Mervyn Bunter, who can photograph a crime scene, dust for fingerprints, press a suit, fix a boiler, tail a suspect and manage a household while also somehow getting a delicious dinner on the table on time. I do wonder sometimes whether Dorothy L. Sayers was indulging in a bit of wish fulfilment when she created Bunter — who among us wouldn’t like such a capable sidekick with us at all times? The one I find most interesting, though, is Margery Allingham’s Magersfontein Lugg, the reformed burglar who acts as personal gentleman and general factotum to her detective Albert Campion. Lugg and Campion have a spikier, more sarcastic relationship than your standard Jeeves and Wooster couple. Although over the course of many novels we realise the mutual bond and affection between them, they constantly express their frustration with each other — Lugg with Campion when he considers that his master is being too posh and whimsical, and Campion with Lugg when the latter’s low social status or straightforward manners causes friction with other characters. However, Lugg’s past as a burglar (we’re told he left the life of crime behind when he lost his figure and could presumably no longer easily scale drainpipes) does come in handy over and over again, when his connections in London’s criminal underworld aid his master’s investigation. The domestic servant sidekick is less often the first person narrator of the detective story, although Bunter does get a chance at relating events via a letter at the start of Busman’s Honeymoon, but they are no less crucial to the eventual resolution of each case. As well as the classic sidekick roles of sounding board and advisor, the likes of Lugg also keep the detective physically capable, making sure they eat food and get dressed properly. For Wimsey, it’s heavily implied throughout the books that it’s only because of Bunter that his lordship was able to recover from the trauma of the first world war and become a functioning member of society again. Some sidekick, eh.
To stick with Wimsey for a moment, my third kind of sidekick also concerns him — the secretary. Although there are frequently male secretaries in golden age detective fiction (think of the overpopulation of them in Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit, for instance), they tend to be more characters in their own right than detective sidekicks. Female secretaries, however, are sometimes accorded the status of sidekick. This type is most prominent in two of the Wimsey books, Unnatural Death and Strong Poison. Indeed, the former introduces Miss Climpson’s cattery, an entire bureau of so-called “surplus women” who Lord Peter employs as secretaries slash inquiry agents (there’s more about this in the very first episode of this podcast). Miss Climpson herself runs the agency, and she also assists Wimsey directly in both of these books, travelling to the place where either a crime took place or a crucial witness lives and entrusted with gathering information undercover as a helpless female in a way that a man never could. One of her employees, Miss Murchison, also performs this function in Strong Poison when she takes a job as a secretary in a solicitor’s office at Wimsey’s behest in order to move the case forward. In Gaudy Night, Harriet Vane’s first thought when it comes to bringing in reinforcements for her sensitive investigation at an Oxford women’s college is Miss Climpson and her army of secretaries, because how else could detective agents be introduced to a community of academic women without arousing suspicion, other than as typists? The female sidekick is an underrepresented character in detective fiction, I think — I’ll say more about this in a moment — but as a secretary, a woman may assist a (probably male) sleuth without arousing suspicion or creating the impression of impropriety. You couldn’t find a more upright character than Miss Felicity Lemon, the secretary that Agatha Christie created for Hercule Poirot and Parker Pyne, yet in that role she is able to provide her detective with invaluable assistance of a kind that a woman without that seal of approval would be less able to give. All hail the secretaries, frankly. Sometimes, they’re the most interesting characters.
Now, we move onto a slightly disputed kind of sidekick: the police detective. I say disputed, because sometimes the police detective is the principal sleuth in a detective story — even during the golden age not all authors were devoting their attention to the gentleman amateur. Roderick Allen, for instance, is a Scotland Yard inspector, as is ER Punshon’s Bobby Owen, Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector French and the Coles’ Superintendent Wilson. But where the amateur does take centre stage, as with Wimsey, Poirot, Marple and countless others, there often needs to be some official presence to grease the wheels of the plot and give the sleuth access to sensitive information and crime scenes and so on. Again, we look to Conan Doyle for the precedent here — it is Inspector Lestrade who often brings Sherlock Holmes into a case as a consultant, or pops up part way through with a crucial bit of information that only the police could plausibly have. And it is in that sense that I consider these characters to be sidekicks. Simply put, Lestrade makes the investigation possible, because without his intervention the detective would still be at home looking for tobacco in the Turkish slipper. If there’s a more vital supporting role, I don’t know what it is. And Lestrade’s image is refashioned across lots of different kinds of stories, from Miss Marple’s collaborations with Scotland Yard commissioner Sir Henry Clithering and his godson Inspector Craddock, to Poirot’s benignly antagonistic relationship with Inspector Japp, to Wimsey’s burgeoning friendship with Inspector Parker. I think as readers we have a tendency to consider these emissaries from officialdom as merely part of the furniture, but I think they’re worth elevating beyond that. Dorothy L Sayers perhaps does this best in Clouds of Witness, when Inspector Parker gets his own motives and even love interest in the course of the investigation alongside Wimsey, but they’re always worth keeping a watchful eye out for, the friendly policeman. You never know what clues they might produce next.
Finally, just before I finish, I want to touch on a rather elusive kind of sidekick — one who actually graduates to becoming a sleuth in their own right. For me, the prime example of this is Agatha Christie’s Ariadne Oliver, a detective novelist herself who first appears as one of the four “experts” in 1936’s Cards on the Table. A decade and a half later, Christie brought her back as Poirot’s main sidekick in 1952’s Mrs McGinty’s Dead, and in her next half dozen appearances, Mrs Oliver takes on a bigger share of the investigation. Indeed, in The Pale Horse, she is the only sleuth on the case, but there are others like Halloween Party and Elephants Can Remember where she does most of the work and Poirot acts only as a kind of mentor figure, helping and encouraging when she gets stuck. Ariadne Oliver is a delightfully tricksy character, since she complicates all of that stuff about the sidekick as narrator, since she’s a writer of mysteries herself and is very conscious of the various tropes as they come along. She’s also a way for Christie to satirise herself. Oliver’s recurring detective is an analogue of Poirot, the vegetarian Finnish sleuth Sven Hjerson, and she frequently expresses her frustration at his popularity and the constant demand for her to keep writing about him even though she knows very little about Finland.
Harriet Vane also has a similar trajectory to Mrs Oliver in some ways — she starts out in Strong Poison as a client Wimsey seeks to defend, and then acts as his sidekick in Have His Carcase, before conducting most of an investigation by herself in Gaudy Night. She’s also a mystery novelist and frequently uses her knowledge of the way plots are created in order to examine possibilities in real life cases. Sayers even slyly references the character’s progress from sidekick to sleuth, because when Wimsey turns up about three quarters of the way through Gaudy Night to hear about the case, he says to Harriet: “We’ll see what kind of a detective you make when you’re left to yourself.” However, Sayers takes Vane one step further than that, because she breaks all the rules about combining romance with detection, and marries Peter and Harriet off at the start of Busman’s Honeymoon. They then undertake a case together in a book that has a lot to say about equality and intellectual freedom in marriage. I’m not sure what Harriet is in that story, but I don’t think she’s the sidekick anymore, especially since Bunter is also on the scene to assist with his usual prowess. I think perhaps Sayers was gesturing towards something else, a genuine partnership within detection, something only possible when the restrictions around giving the sleuth a full realised emotional life are lifted. Love and the solving of mysteries: that’s a topic for another day.
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books and sources I’ve mentioned at the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/sidekicks. There, you can also read a full transcript.
Don’t forget that if you’d like to see me doing this as well as hearing it, you can come to one of the upcoming Shedunnit live shows in Dublin or Birmingham. More details and tickets at shedunnitshow.com/events
I’ll be back on 30 October with another episode.
Next time on Shedunnit: The Mutual Admiration Society