R.J. Koreto’s first fiction publication was in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in December 2015. He has since created two turn-of-the-century mystery series at novel length, one featuring aristocratic suffragist Lady Frances Ffolkes and her maid, June Mallow, the other presidential daughter Alice Roosevelt and her bodyguard, ex–Rough Rider Joseph St. Clair. Richard’s latest novel-in-progress stars New York journalist Ted Jellinek and his not-quite-girlfriend, attorney Penelope Tolford, the pair from his debut EQMM story. In all of these series, a duo rather than a lone sleuth solves the crime. It’s that pairing, and the role of the sidekick in crime fiction, that is the subject of this post.—Janet Hutchings
The sidekick isn’t de rigueur in mystery fiction. After all, Miss Marple walked down those mean streets (okay—“country lanes”) all by herself. But I have a partiality for the sleuth-and-sidekick model, so when in my arrogance I decided I was going to write a mystery novel, I knew my sleuth would have a loyal assistant.
Creating an effective pair required more work than I realized at first. So, for the benefit of others, I’ve created some brief guidelines for the creation of the sidekick.
- How Are They Connected?
You have to create a plausible reason to get the pair together.
My first series features Lady Frances Ffolkes, a suffragist and a supporter of progressive causes in 1906 London. I decided her sidekick would be her lady’s maid, June Mallow. It wasn’t such a stretch: Wealthy women had personal maids to dress them, arrange their hair, and offer sympathy when a suitor or husband was being insufficiently attentive. It’s a short step to being an assistant sleuth. (Lord Peter Wimsey had his Bunter; the Toff had his Jolly.)
For my second series, though, I went in a different direction. This features Alice Roosevelt, oldest child of Theodore Roosevelt, who grew from being an unmanageable child to a wildly unconventional adult. Who would be a worthy sidekick? After all, even her father—a war hero—wasn’t able to control her.
I saddled Alice with the fictional Agent Joseph St. Clair, a former Western lawman and veteran of the Rough Riders. He’s as different from Alice as possible: a world-weary gunslinger who doesn’t see any problem wearing his long riding coat, cowboy boots, and Stetson hat on the streets of Gilded-Age Manhattan.
- What is the sidekick’s job?
The sidekick may be the junior partner, but they still have important tasks to do.
Mallow doesn’t forget that she is first and foremost a maid, and must force Lady Frances to sit still long enough to get her hair done and be put into a good dress for dinner with her fiancé. She is also the voice of common sense for her daring aristocratic mistress: When Lady Frances decides they have to seek witnesses in a rough London pub, it’s Mallow who brings along a rolling pin as a weapon. And when Lady Frances’s protective older brother questions Mallow about his sister’s detective adventures, Mallow looks him in the eye—and lies like a pro.
Agent St. Clair also has to keep Alice Roosevelt safe, and he can rely on his quick fists and his Colt revolver. But that’s just the beginning. He quickly finds that he has to run interference between Alice, whose antics have become legendary, and her equally strong-willed aunt, Mrs. Cowles, who raised her niece—Alice’s mother died two days after she was born. (“If Alice does something like that again, Mr. St. Clair, I will see you on the next train to San Francisco,” she warns him after Alice does something especially egregious.) When Alice boldly lies her way into New York’s exclusive and all-male University Club, St. Clair backs her play and pretends he’s a city health inspector. He can also pour oil on the water: When Alice tops that event by rifling through the files of a private detective, the outraged gumshoe demands St. Clair rein in his charge. “You’re a federal lawman. Can’t you stop her?” St. Clair shrugs. “Her father is the bravest and smartest man I know. He can’t control her. What chance do we have? Let her have her way and then we can all go home.”
St. Clair occasionally falls down on the job, however. After his fast draw saves a life at the end of one adventure, Alice decides she needs a drink and confiscates St. Clair’s flask. “Bourbon!” she says, spitting it out. “You’re charged with caring for the president’s daughter. Next time carry something civilized, like brandy.”
- The sidekick and the sleuth need a reason to stay together.
The sidekick’s job is not always an easy one, so they need strong bonds.
Sherlock Holmes dragging Watson away from his practice at all hours, Archie Goodwin trying to get Nero Wolfe’s mind away from his béchamel sauce and back to work. So why do they stay? Watson has some gratitude. After all, if he hadn’t helped Holmes in The Sign of the Four he never would’ve met his wife. Archie gets a steady job and three gourmet meals a day.
But there’s genuine friendship and affection aside from any other rewards, even if the relationship seems lopsided and perhaps even unequal at times. Holmes and Wolfe are not the most demonstrative of men, and only show their appreciation for their sidekicks on rare occasions. When they do, however, it’s genuine.
June Mallow has a pretty sweet gig as Lady Frances’s maid, by Edwardian standards: good wages, a private room, and a chance to meet a range of celebrities, from actresses like Mrs. Patrick Campbell to King Edward VII. Best of all are the rides on her mistress’s coattails: As a woman, and a servant, Mallow was at the bottom of the Edwardian class structure. But she’s intelligent, even shrewd, with plenty of ambition. And she enjoys it every time Lady Frances pokes a finger in society’s eye. What could be more fun than having her ladyship send her on a secret mission to get help—and returning with a detective inspector and squad of constables, to the astonishment of the culprit. How often does a maid get to send a gentleman to prison! Lady Frances then promises to take Mallow, an avid knitter, to a yarn shop where she’ll buy her all the skeins they can carry.
For Alice Roosevelt and Agent St. Clair, the bonds that hold them together are a little more subtle. St. Clair likes to complain about how what was supposed to be a cushy job turns into a nightmare protecting Alice from her own whims. And Alice throws a fit every time he tells her there is something she can’t do. But although St. Clair might like to say his Wild-West days are over, he admits to himself in quiet of the night that he misses the old days. He misses the adventures. Alice lets him find his way back.
And what about Alice? She keeps threatening to ask her father to give her a new bodyguard, but we know she won’t. Alice goes into a major sulk when her handsome and charming bodyguard shows an interest in a sharp-witted female reporter. You couldn’t torture her into admitting it, but she’s developed quite an infatuation for St. Clair. It’s a relationship that can never happen, but that doesn’t change her heart. There is more than one kind of bond between a sleuth and a sidekick.
So how can I apply these guidelines to my next novel?
My latest work-in-progress is a modern story, featuring reporter Ted Jellinek and his not-quite-girlfriend, attorney Penelope Tolford. (They were introduced in an EQMM story, in fact.) It’s once again a sleuth-and-sidekick story. But which is which? As they investigate a murder, Ted draws a conclusion, which Penelope disagrees with.
“You have another theory, my dear Watson?” he asks her.
Penelope just glares at him. “What the hell makes you think that I’m the Watson in our relationship?”
I’m going to have fun with this one.