The Sidekick Character in Detective Fiction: Background information when reading Fortune Favors the Dead

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Fortune Favors the Dead

Pentecost and Parker #1

by Stephen Spotswood

Fortune Favors the Dead by  Stephen Spotswood X
Fortune Favors the Dead by  Stephen Spotswood
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2020, 336 pages

    Aug 2021, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Jordan Lynch
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About this Book

The Sidekick Character in Detective Fiction

This article relates to Fortune Favors the Dead

Print Review

Dr. John Watson and Sherlock Holmes In Fortune Favors the Dead, being in the wrong place at the right time earns Will Parker the job of assistant to Lillian Pentecost, New York City's classiest and most unorthodox private investigator. Although Lillian's worsening multiple sclerosis is her initial motivation for hiring the younger woman, Will possesses a keen eye and a unique skillset that make her the perfect partner for the lady detective. As the two work together to solve some of the city's strangest mysteries, they soon develop a classic detective-sidekick relationship.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle didn't invent detective stories — that honor belongs to Edgar Allen Poe, whose 1841 "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," featuring the famous C. Auguste Dupin, is generally considered the first of the genre — but Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series established the detective sidekick character through Dr. John Watson. Since then, many famous fictional detectives have had a sidekick or two accompanying them on their adventures, such as cousins Bess Marvin and George Fayne in the Nancy Drew book series and Captain Arthur Hastings in Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot novels. But what has made the sidekick such a successful part of detective fiction?

Perhaps the most important role of the sidekick is to serve as a surrogate for the reader. While the detective's brilliance and quirks may make them feel unrelatable, the sidekick can seem normal by comparison. They may be clever and have their own areas of expertise — John Watson, for example, is a medical doctor — but they'll never quite compare with the detective. Even though they help solve the mystery, maybe even providing the essential clue, the sidekick is not typically the one to ultimately put everything together and come to the correct solution. Instead, they represent your average person caught up in a world of mystery, and they keep the reader from feeling unintelligent for not making the incredible leaps of logic usually necessary for solving the case. A well-written sidekick is not only relatable, they allow the reader to enjoy the story rather than discouraging or boring them with all the minute details.

However, the reader can still follow the important details thanks to the sidekick's role of confidante to the detective. By providing the detective a companion with whom the case can be discussed, mystery writers create an easy way for the plot to be rehashed and for the detective's thought process to be explained without sharing too much information at once. Jameson Rook plays this role in the Nikki Heat series as he shadows the eponymously named detective, as does fictional author Richard Castle in the related television series, Castle. By asking questions that readers themselves are likely asking, the sidekick can prompt the detective to explain their reasoning so everyone is on the same page. This gives readers a chance to solve the mystery before the final reveal, and keeps those who aren't able to do so from feeling as if they're being patronized.

Sidekicks can also serve to humanize the detective. Sherlock Holmes, for example, is not necessarily likable on his own, but seen through Watson's eyes, he becomes much more approachable. The sidekick is often a close friend of the detective, which allows the reader to see more than just the investigator-on-the-case persona, causing the detective to become a more realistic character. Furthermore, the sidekick can provide emotional support for the detective, something which they may have been denied due to the odd disposition and habits that give them an advantage in crime-solving but have led to their ostracization from normal society. The friendship between the detective and the sidekick is often an "opposites attract" one, and the contrast in personalities helps make this important relationship in the story interesting. Looking again at Holmes and Watson, the two are foil characters: Holmes is all head, while Watson is heart; Holmes focuses on the details, while Watson sees the big picture; Holmes is complex, Watson is straightforward. By presenting two such differing people, mystery writers can create a partnership that encompasses all aspects of human nature while maintaining a level of excitement and tension that will keep readers invested.

In her role of sidekick, Will Parker provides readers with a relatable point of view as well as a detailed look at the story's murder mystery. Although she does occasionally act in the role of the detective, particularly as Lillian's illness limits her sleuthing abilities, Will largely follows in the footsteps of many famous sidekicks to round out a remarkable detective duo. Fortune Favors the Dead is a wonderful addition to the mystery genre, and Pentecost and Parker may one day find their way onto lists of the most-beloved fictional crime-solving teams.

Dr. John Watson (left) and Sherlock Holmes (right). Illustration by Sidney Paget, from "The Greek Interpreter," published in The Strand Magazine in September, 1893.

Filed under Cultural Curiosities

Article by Jordan Lynch

This "beyond the book article" relates to Fortune Favors the Dead. It originally ran in November 2020 and has been updated for the August 2021 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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