Golden Age Sidekicks: The Heirs of John Watson

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson
Friends to the end.
I don’t think it would surprise many people to know that I consider John Watson, M.D., to be the prototype for most of the sidekicks in Golden Age detective novels. He’s possibly unique, though, in that he, the so-called sidekick, narrates the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Everything we know about Holmes is seen through Watson’s eyes; this is even occasionally remarked upon in text, when Holmes comments upon the stories Watson publishes. In contrast, what we know about Watson is subject to what he himself tells us, and that is minimal (for instance, the location of his war wound, famously wandering: was it his leg, or his shoulder?). That makes sense, though, if it isn’t Watson’s personality that we’re meant to be interested in: he’s the stand-in for us, the readers. When Holmes explains something to Watson, or to Lestrade, he is really explaining it to us. We are the sidekicks.

Watson’s position as the closest friend of Sherlock Holmes, and repository of some of his secrets, carried on through generations of future detective stories.  It’s my belief that the value of having someone for the detective to explain things to is, well, invaluable. In addition, given Watson‘s military and medical experience, he could also lend a hand when things got dangerous. 

Looking ahead to the “Golden Age” of detective fiction, for my purposes roughly the 1920s-1930s, almost every series detective has a sidekick. Some had more than one. Some had a sidekick in nearly every novel; some only appeared when needed for the plot. The type of sidekick also varied, but it’s interesting to see how many had facets of Watson, including three of my favorites.

Patrick Malahide as DCI Patrick Alleyn
Patrick Malahide as DCI Patrick Alleyn
Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn was often backed up by his fellow policemen, especially Inspector Fox, but the young journalist Nigel Bathgate better fits the name of sidekick, as it‘s not actually his job to help Alleyn out. Bathgate appears for the first time in Marsh’s second novel, Enter a Murderer, one of several in the Alleyn series that involve theatre people or productions.  In that novel, Bathgate is a point-of-view character, rare among sidekicks of the period, but an echo of Watson. He serves both to explicate Alleyn’s investigations to the reader and to lay false trails, as he makes many assumptions that turn out to be wrong. Bathgate enriches the story, offering the point of view of a non-policeman, non-detective. In all those things, he bears resemblance to Watson.

Brian Glover as Magersfontein Lugg
Brian Glover as Magersfontein Lugg
Detectives like Holmes who are not policemen generally have contacts in the police. Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion worked with two different inspectors from Scotland Yard, Stanislaus Oates and later Charlie Luke, but his true sidekick was the burglar-turned-manservant Magersfontein Lugg. Lugg, with his East End accent and awkward manners offered a strong contrast to Campion’s smooth social polish, and a fair amount of comic relief in the more lighthearted stories. His resemblance to Watson lies mainly in his extra-curricular skills; if muscle was needed, Lugg could provide it along with pungent opinions. Unlike Watson, he also provided contacts in the criminal underworld, which was an interesting twist.

Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Whimsey and Glyn Houston as Bunter
Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Whimsey and Glyn Houston as Bunter
My favorite detective of this period is Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Wimsey.  An amateur detective, he has Charles Parker as his police contact; Parker eventually becomes his brother-in-law. But Wimsey’s true sidekick is Bunter, his valet and all-around factotum since they served together during World War One. Bunter has a larger role in Wimsey’s investigations than the sidekicks I’ve mentioned previously. For instance, Bunter has professional photography skills, which he uses at crime scenes, and he is invaluable at questioning suspects, particularly servants who might be distrustful of an aristocrat.  It’s repeatedly mentioned that young women find it easy to confide in him. Most importantly, though, Bunter and Wimsey share a close emotional bond of which they rarely speak, but which appears again and again throughout the series of novels. Despite being master and servant, they are in many respects more like equals.

Bunter, I think, not only embodies some of Watson’s traits, he adds a new level as well; not just companion and helpmeet, but even fellow investigator.  Perhaps he is a forerunner of more equal detecting partners, such as Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury and Melrose Plant.


Victoria Janssen is the author of three erotic novels and numerous short stories.  Her latest novel is The Duke and The Pirate Queen from Harlequin Spice.  Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.

Comments

  1. Carmen Pinzon

    Where would Nero Wolf fit? Archie is his employee and narrates the stories. His contacts in the police are not to felicitous, (Cramer being the least offencive one.) Yet I cannot imagine Nero without Archie at his side.

  2. Deborah Lacy

    I totally agree that Watson is the prototype for sidekicks and what a gift that was. I would add Poirot with Hastings. Hastings, like Watson, often gives Poirot the answer without realizing it himself.

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