It’s been a wonderfully sociable summer here at Chez 28 and in the wake of a splendid visit from old good friends from the other Portland (and my Medicare birthday), I’ve been considering the nature of friendship. And then because my mind is never too far from the work, I’m thinking about the uses of friendship and sidekicks and relationships in crime fiction.
Having just reread Charles Willeford’s Hoke Moseley series, I happened to be thinking about Florida, since my earliest dip into reading crime fiction—leaving out the Hardy Boys, who count for me mostly as an introduction to what was possible—was John MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, which I’ve written about elsewhere.
Travis McGee is a big rough man of action, physically imposing (though occasionally thoughtful). He is smooth with women (by 60’s standards) and prefers solving things in a straight-on way. But McGee’s best friend, sidekick, and fictional foil is a hairy economist named Meyer who lives on a houseboat named after John Maynard Keynes (at least until it was blown up).
One of the things I appreciate most about the McGee novels is how MacDonald uses Meyer’s character as a fictional device.
If McGee is the action character, Meyer is the thinking one. He’s a world-renowned academic, a gentle soul, and McGee’s opposite in many ways. Most notably, though, because MacDonald casts him as both thoughtful and verbal, the writer can use Meyer to explain things. If there’s exposition to be done, Meyer can do it believably in the context of his character. Long speeches out of McGee would sound forced but from a character used to thinking out loud and teaching, the speeches flow through without and bring us information we need without force-feeding us.
MacDonald also uses Meyer’s scenes with McGee for relief between action sequences. Readers and writers of crime fiction both understand that you can’t have all action, all the time, that the after the most intensely violent scenes, the reader needs a breather. Many of the quieter scenes with McGee and Meyer take place over dinners or in bars or in McGee’s houseboat, The Busted Flush, where previous action is reviewed, plans are made, Plymouth gin is drunk, and philosophies batted about. Without these breaks, which incidentally help deepen the characters, the headlong action would tire the reader out.
There’s also the way the protagonist and sidekick can change each other, especially over the course of a series. Meyer’s more passive and thoughtful character, like that of other sidekicks, contrasts with the active, physical, and violent character of McGee. As protagonist, McGee’s job is to carry the story’s action. But as a recurring character, Meyer changes McGee over the course of the books, as McGee does Meyer. Meyer occasionally takes an active solution to a problem at hand; McGee becomes more reflective about what he does and the way the bodies can pile up. They do not become each other so much as come closer to each other, and in the process, create character development, which is character interest.
And too, with a first-person narrator like McGee, a writer needs an extra body to go out into other parts of the fictional world where the narrator is not or cannot be at the moment and bring back news and information necessary to drive the plot. Having an extra character connected to the protagonist in that intimate way is an invaluable accessory.
Relationships—sidekicks and otherwise—make strange bedfellows. Witness the circus of relationships in our electoral process, playing out in terms of who supports whom, who’s friend and who’s enemy, today and tomorrow. We may or may not elect our first woman President but it is certainly obvious by now that a protagonist needs a sidekick more than a fish needs a bicycle.
(I’m sorry. Really. Blame my age . . .)