Mystery fiction is filled with men and women who act as foils for the main character. Perhaps the most famous—and archetype for those who followed—is Sherlock Holmes’s sidekick, Dr. John Hamish Watson. Stout and loyal, a man of action, Dr. Watson follows Holmes eagerly into every adventure and backs him up when things get tight. He serves as our emotional connection to Sherlock Holmes, an intellectual genius who is the embodiment of the total man of reason: logical, analytical, detached, and distant. But because of Watson’s friendship with Holmes and his unflappable willingness to assist him, we are able to see that underneath that cold exterior, Sherlock Holmes is a good man.
“Holmes was a man of habits… and I had become one of them… a comrade… upon whose nerve he could place some reliance… a whetstone for his mind. I stimulated him… If I irritated him by a certain methodical slowness in my mentality, that irritation served only to make his own flame-like intuitions and impressions flash up the more vividly and swiftly. Such was my humble role in our alliance. – “The Adventure of the Creeping Man,” in Arthur Conan Doyle, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (London: John Murray, 1927, pp. 50-64)
In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army. Having completed my studies there, I was duly attached to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers as Assistant Surgeon. The regiment was stationed in India at the time, and before I could join it, the second Afghan war had broken out. On landing at Bombay, I learned that my corps had advanced through the passes, and was already deep in the enemy’s country. I followed, however, with many other officers who were in the same situation as myself, and succeeded in reaching Candahar in safety, where I found my regiment, and at once entered upon my new duties.
The campaign brought honours and promotion to many, but for me it had nothing but misfortune and disaster. I was removed from my brigade and attached to the Berkshires, with whom I served at the fatal battle of Maiwand. There I was struck on the shoulder by a Jezail bullet, which shattered the bone and grazed the subclavian artery. I should have fallen into the hands of the murderous Ghazis had it not been for the devotion and courage shown by Murray, my orderly, who threw me across a pack-horse, and succeeded in bringing me safely to the British lines.
Worn with pain, and weak from the prolonged hardships which I had undergone, I was removed, with a great train of wounded sufferers, to the base hospital at Peshawar. Here I rallied, and had already improved so far as to be able to walk about the wards, and even to bask a little upon the verandah, when I was struck down by enteric fever, that curse of our Indian possessions. For months my life was despaired of, and when at last I came to myself and became convalescent, I was so weak and emaciated that a medical board determined that not a day should be lost in sending me back to England. I was dispatched, accordingly, in the troopship “Orontes,” and landed a month later on Portsmouth jetty, with my health irretrievably ruined, but with permission from a paternal government to spend the next nine months in attempting to improve it.
Three years later, Watson encounters an old friend on a street in London who tells him that he knows of a man looking for someone to split the rent. The friend takes him to a lab in a local hospital, where Watson is impressed by Holmes’s knowledge of chemistry and his amazing powers of deduction. After listing their faults, the two men agree to share a flat. And the rest is, as we say, history. Dr. Watson becomes Holmes’s trusted ally and his chronicler.
From Sherlock’s Holmes’s Dr. Watson to Hercule Poirot’s Captain Arthur Hastings, Nero Wolfe’s Archie Goodwin, Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley’s Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, and Inspector Morse’s Detective Sergeant Robbie Lewis, mysteries would not be the same without them.
As I see it, a sidekick or junior partner:
- Acts as foil for the lead detective
- Has a different worldview than the lead detective’s
- Has character traits that complement the lead detective’s
- Has skills that aid the lead detective
- Serves as our emotional connection to the lead detective
- Protects the lead detective
- Assists the lead detective in solving the murder
- And last but not least, often provides comic relief.
But what do you think?