In many crime novels, there’s a main sleuth (usually, but not always, the protagonist), and an assistant/second-in-command. The main sleuth is usually the one who puts the major pieces of the puzzle together and solves the case. But don’t underestimate the assistant. There are plenty of them out there who quietly do more than their share of solving cases and making the main sleuth look good as a result.
These can be really interesting characters, too, in their own right. Sometimes they’re a bit enigmatic; sometimes they’re more transparent than that. Either way, it can add to a story when the assistant is at least as skilled as (sometimes even better than?) the main sleuth.
Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, for instance, is a brilliant detective. He often puts together very difficult cases, and his reputation is well-deserved. But make no mistake; his assistant, Archie Goodwin, has quite a lot of skill of his own. In fact, it’s a good question whether he is actually an employee (well, technically, of course, he is) or a business partner. Certainly his ‘street smarts’ and other detecting skills are a match for just about anyone. He’s also an interesting character in his own right.
Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey is the main detective in the novels featuring him (although Harriet Vane does more than her share of detecting as the series goes on!). He’s gotten a certain reputation for being good at solving mysteries, too. But you’d be wrong to underestimate his assistant, Mervyn Bunter. Bunter is Lord Peter’s valet, among other things, so they’re not social equals. But Lord Peter doesn’t make the mistake of discounting what Bunter thinks and says. Bunter is intelligent and observant, and he’s been known to put some of the pieces of a case together. What’s more, because he’s a valet, he fits in with others of the ‘serving class,’ and finds out things that his boss couldn’t. He has his own way of thinking, too, that’s very helpful to Lord Peter.
Helene Tursten’s Inspector Irene Huss is a Göteborg police detective who works with the Violent Crimes Unit. She is the protagonist of the series, so the novels follow her share of the detective work. But that doesn’t mean she does all of the work on her own. She relies on all of her teammates, and her boss. One of the more interesting of those teammates is Harmu Rauhala. The only Finn among the group of Swedes, he’s a bit enigmatic, and he’s not one to spend a lot of time chatting and so on. But he has a way of getting information, of putting the puzzle pieces together, and of being right where he needs to be. And he’s an interesting character, too. He always seems to have a solid sense about a case, and the other members of the team know to pay attention to what he says and does.
Carl Mørck is Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Copenhagen homicide detective. He’s in charge of ‘Department Q,’ which is dedicated to cases of ‘special interest’ – basically cold cases. The department was originally set up in part to respond to media and political pressure to tackle unsolved crimes. It’s a small department, consisting of three people: Mørck; his assistant Hafez al-Assad; and their secretary, Rose Knudsen. Mørck is an excellent detective, if abrasive and often difficult. He does his job well, and he gets results. But just as skilled in his own way is Assad. He has a very mysterious background, and we don’t get to know him as well as we know Mørck. But he is skilled, smart, and shrewd. And he’s sometimes the one who puts the team on the right path or gets information. And Rose is no slouch, either. Mørck knows, whether or not he’ll admit it, that he depends on both Assad and Rose.
Emily Brightwell’s historical (Victorian Era) series features Inspector Gerald Witherspoon of the (London) Metropolitan Police Department. Witherspoon is intelligent enough, and he is a dedicated detective. But he has a reputation for solving cases that’s greater than his actual skills would suggest. That’s in large part because of his housekeeper, Mrs. Jeffries. She’s got a natural ability to put puzzle pieces together, and the supervises a staff of people who do the ‘legwork.’ What’s interesting about Mrs. Jeffries is that, as housekeeper, she is not her employer’s social equal. In that time and place, it doesn’t help that she’s a woman. So, she has to be creative about finding ways to point Witherspoon in the right direction.
And then there’s Brian Stoddart’s Police Sergeant Muhammad ‘Habi’ Habibullah. He lives and works in 1920s Madras (now Chennai). It’s the last few years of the British Raj, and Habi is neither white nor Christian (he is Muslim). He’s not English, either. So, there’s only so far he can rise in the ranks of the police. But he is a dedicated and skilled detective. His boss, Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu knows that Habi is a trustworthy, skilled detective, who has to be, as the saying goes, twice as good to get half as far. So, he gives Habi as much authority as he can, and supports him. He depends on Habi, too, to help solve cases. Things become very difficult for both of them in A Greater God, during which there is increased bigotry and worse against Muslims. And Le Fanu’s boss, Arthur Jepson, doesn’t make anything easier with his racist beliefs. Le Fanu knows that Habi can be trusted to do his job well. But there are people on the police who believe that Habi will side with his own people. And he is torn, as he sees what’s happening. It makes for real tension in the novel.
The protagonist of a crime novel often gets a lot of the attention. But sometimes, the assistant/second-in-command is just as good – even better. And that can make for an interesting story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Dean Friedman.