Sleuths, Shamuses and Sidekicks

<i> Charles Champlin, Arts Editor Emeritus for the Times, writes the monthly Criminal Pursuits column for Book Review. </i>

I keep wondering whether Edgar Allan Poe had the faintest idea what the consequences would be when he invented C. Auguste Dupin, the world’s first series sleuth (the word detective not having come into vogue in 1840.) I wonder as well whether Sir Arthur Conan Doyle realized, when he invented Dr. John Watson as sidekick and sounding board for Sherlock Holmes, what an inundation of sidekicks would follow--most, although not all of them, as slow of comprehension as Watson himself.

Skimming two to three dozen crime novels each month, and reading six or seven closely for review, as I’ve been doing for these six corpse-filled years now, I’ve been awed and occasionally appalled by the fast-multiplying population of fictional sleuths, shamuses and sidekicks, all trying to restore order and justice in societies that are obviously short of both.

Every day brings a new crime fighter, man, woman or beast--there are at least two cats in the business--and each more strenuously colorful, not to say bizarre, than the others.



Astonished by this proliferation of new sleuths, I recently began listing all the series protagonists that came before my eye. I looked only at books and bound galleys I had at hand, so the list was not exhaustive. Even so I listed more than 150 detectives, amateur and professional, accidental and intended, foreign and domestic, with and without sidekicks. By waiting another week or so, I could have spotted a dozen more at least.

The range of the sleuths is as remarkable as the number, from a one-legged Chicago cop who is also a single mother to a dwarf criminologist who was formerly a circus performer. Not to mention those two cats, at least two priests, two nuns, a bishop confined to a wheelchair but aided by a Jewish sidekick, shamuses (a term embracing both policemen and private eyes) of all grades and conditions of life, more Scotland Yard inspectors and chief inspectors than the Yard actually has (or so it feels), a professional magician who is a full-time horseplayer, an art curator, an art restorer, a banker or two, public relations persons, the proprietor of a gambling joint, a child psychologist, a Mayan tour guide, an interior designer, an alcoholic actor, an antiques whiz, a woman who owns a New Orleans beauty salon, sleuths who have only one name (Nebraska) or none (the Nameless detective), writers and reporters in all media and, of course, lawyers and assistant DA’s and other legal personnel beyond counting. And there are some collective protagonists as well, like Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct detectives, and a division of Glasgow police in a series by Peter Turnbull.

I stress that these are all presently on the job. Forget yesterday’s heroes. Dupin, Holmes, Charlie Chan, Philo Vance, Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Maigret, Albert Campion, the Continental Op, Nick and Nora Charles, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer and all the others have solved their last cases. But there seem a dozen candidates to replace each of them (in quantity, not necessarily in personal charm and originality).

The majority of the new figures carry forward the tradition of the private eye as battered idealist (now female as well as male) walking mean streets and fighting the good fights against those ancient devils greed, jealousy, lust, revenge and all-purpose corruption.


Other sleuths perpetuate the other side of tradition in crime writing, where idiosyncrasy and whimsy characterize a make-believe world so strenuously amusing that dust jacket blurbs such as “zany,” “wisecracking,” “madcap,” “hilarious” and, above all, “irrepressible,” I have come to regard as invitations to tiptoe out of the room.

The appeal of the series character for both authors and publishers is easy to understand: When and if the character acquires a following there is a built-in want-to-read for all the succeeding titles. But the series can also be a trap for authors. Conan Doyle tried to kill off Holmes, but was famously forced by reader pressure to fetch him back alive. Agatha Christie came to loathe Poirot as she loathed no living person, but there was no getting rid of him until death claimed them both.


One of the few authors to resist the series trap has been Dick Francis, who almost always creates a new hero each time out. To be sure, it is almost always the same hero, renamed but only slightly re-tailored, customarily a late-30ish ex-jockey still allied to the world of horse racing one way or another. Francis once said that introducing a new character each time helped him fill 20 pages of a book at least--always helpful when you are galloping toward your 30th title.


The appeal of the series character for the reader is that over the course of three or 10 or, in the case of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Jules Maigret, more than 70 novels, the detective becomes as familiar, real and well-liked as a living friend, who just happens to reside elsewhere.

Commercial prospects aside, the series character in the hands of a thoughtful author can transform what might have been simply a succession of repetitive plots into a kind of anthology, in which the solution of the actual mystery and the rendering of justice is sometimes incidental; the context is all.

Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski novels have become a lively catalogue of current social issues, as Warshawski jousts with medical fraud, ruthless developers, political and police corruption and other sores on the common weal.

P. D. James, out of her years as a British civil servant, especially in welfare and hospital care, takes her Adam Dalgliesh through stories that one way or another involve the institutions of the state, including the Church of England and an atomic power plant. She creates a mosaic, necessarily incomplete but carefully detailed in its parts, of current British society, and Dalgliesh becomes as much witness as protagonist.


James Lee Burke, one of the most elegantly eloquent of American crime writers, has created in his New Orleans detective, Dave Robicheaux, an ongoing portrayal, insightful and touching, of a thoroughly realized individual operating in a realistic, non-tourist Louisiana milieu. Like most of the best of current authors in the field, Burke pushes at the presumed limits of the form, so that in the end there is not so much the solution of a puzzle but the ultimate revelation of character, relationships and places.

Series characters like Sue Grafton’s insurance investigator Kinsey Millhone and Patricia Cornwell’s Richmond medical examiner Dr. Kay Scarpetta have the appeal of well-constructed plots and intimately-described work environments, but even more importantly the attraction of female protagonists who are at once engaging and independent-minded achievers and also vulnerable and very credibly human.

The private eye has changed in many ways since Dashiell Hammett and his first successors made him an archetype. But it is remarkable how often we still meet him sitting in a shabby office wondering how to pay the rent, when a sexy lady sashays in with money to burn and a story (seldom true) to tell. Some traditions are sacred, and commercially sure-fire as well.

But the new private eye, in a departure pioneered by Ross Macdonald, is no longer inevitably the whiskey-swilling, chain-smoking, sardonically wisecracking knight in a poplin raincoat. Macdonald’s Lew Archer wept on finding the body of a murdered girl, and the moment is a milestone of sorts.


Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder, like Burke’s Robicheaux, is a recovering alcoholic, and their struggles to stay sober lend another level of suspense to their adventures. The new investigators are not less skeptical and cynical than their predecessors, and no less concerned to see justice done (inside or outside the law). But they feel more deeply, kill more reluctantly--and often have nightmares when they are forced to.

Murder is still the norm, of course; it has not been replaced as the worst of humankind’s deeds. But crime fiction has come a long way since the pulp magazine formula called for violent action every 500 words. Violence is still a norm, too, yet it is a thread linking the curious and infinite variety of present series characters that violence has become a last resort, not the first.

The silliest and coziest of the recent sleuths have their devoted readers, although they also lend some weight to Edmund Wilson’s famous rhetorical demand to know who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd. But it must be said that the best of contemporary crime fiction, and the most fully-realized of the new breed of sleuths, reflect their times with an accuracy and a sensitivity that even so stern a literary critic as Wilson might have had, grudgingly, to admire.