Thursday, April 5, 2018

My Dear Watson

"Are there archetypes in crime fiction you wouldn't be without? Are there any you'd happily never meet again?"

By Catriona

I do love a sidekick. Holmes' Watson, Poirot's Hastings, Wimsey's Bunter, Myron's Win . . . the supporting character saves us ploughing through a lot of internal pondering and delivers instead my favourite element in any novel: dialogue.

"I wondered how much longer I could spin out this one drink, when the barman would swipe the glass with its puddle of ice-water out from my grip and show me the door."


"Don't drink so fast."
"We're on expenses."
"Who pays the expenses, genius? Oh God, here comes the barman. Spit those ice-cubes out and let them melt."
"I'll share them if you don't stop bugging me."

I know which I prefer.

Some traditional sidekicks bumble and make the hero look even more dashing and heroic (Hastings and Watson himself), some do the technical stuff that's never going to make a scene sizzle (Bunter with his camera and his insufflator), and some do the dastardly deeds that might need done but which would tarnish the hero's halo beyond all re-buffing. Win, in Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar series, is a psychopath by any way of reckoning. He's got a little wart on his psychopathy, granted, in that he loves Myron. But for the rest of us, who're not Myron? I'd rather spill Tony Soprano's drink than Windsor Horne Lockwood III's. Wouldn't you?

In my own writing, Dandy Gilver's sidekick, Alec Osborne, does the dull bits and spars with the heroine but he's not a bumbler. They get a pretty fair share of the lightbulb moments each (I think), and their crotchety, competitive, nearly good-humoured dialogues are the most fun I ever have writing these books.

When I started a new series (SCOT FREE: out in the US this Sunday!) it was supposed to be an ensemble piece. There's the heroine, Lexy Campbell, and six more people - wait, seven - who she befriends at the outset of her first case, when she checks into the Last Ditch Motel. By about a third of the way through, one of the seven had become her Watson.  And looking back now, it was inevitable from the get-go. Lexy meets Todd when he barges into her motel room, demanding that she help him dispose of a spider.

“Tis gone,” I said, coming back into my own room. Todd was under the covers again.
“I heard the faucet. Did you just wash it down the plughole? Because they come back.”
“I didn’t just wash it away,” I told him. “It’s dead.”
“What did you- No! Don’t tell me! But what did you- No!”
“It’s not out the window. It’s not in your bin. It’s not over the rail. It’s not back here with me. It’s gone.”
“Gone where? Don’t tell me!”
“Okay,” I said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go. I need to bail a friend out of jail this morning and I’m running late.”
“Would you like to borrow a hat?” said Todd.
‘It’s too hot to wear a hat,” I said.
“Hot?” said Todd. “It’s not going to be hot today. I’ll get a hat for you,” he added, standing. “The judge is never going to let your friend walk free with your hair like that."

He's got a big heart, a big brain, a lot of free time, a car, and absolutely no boundaries. He's the perfect sidekick. I know I shouldn't say this about a character I wrote, but I love him.

Now, to the second half of the question. I was going to say I found "will-they-won't-they" a bit played out, but then I remembered Robert Galbraith's novels (three and tapping my foot: where's the fourth?). They've got a terrific hero in the shambling, ex-army misfit, Cormoran Strike, but I find Robin just as compelling and the relationship between the two has breathed new life into the venerable crime-fiction trope of unresolved sexual tension. The genius of the Strike novels is that none of the tension is in the characters. They're just offered to us: Strike with his horrible ex, and his ill-judged one-night stands; Robin with her passive-aggressive fiance and her kindness. It's us, the readers, who're screaming at them to go for it. Maybe it's just me. But I'm screaming pretty loud.

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