Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Jeri Westerson on Sidekicks

Jungle Red: Today we welcome L.A. native Jeri Westerson, who writes a medieval mystery series with a decidedly hardboiled twist. Her newest release, SERPENT IN THE THORNS—A Medieval Noir, blends her love of medieval history with her other love of noir.

We Get our Kicks from Sidekicks
By Jeri Westerson

Sidekicks can serve an important role for a sleuth. Though Sam Spade started off with partner Miles Archer, it was clear his sidekick was really Effie Perine, his faithful and not faint-of-heart secretary. A sidekick does the legwork (and what legs!) and in some instances, can also be the source of the sleuth’s finding an important clue (it’s the sleuth that has to really solve the case, however, otherwise there’s no reason to spend three hundred pages with him!)

A sidekick can also be the source of some much-needed comic relief when the action gets dark and heavy. He’s a sounding board for the detective to bounce ideas off of. He—or she—can be in jeopardy, the damsel in distress, for the heroic detective to save.

Whatever the purpose the sidekick serves, he had better be more than a cardboard cut-out or there can be no empathy for his thankless and often tireless work.

A sidekick can be as cunning as Bunter for Lord Peter Wimsey, or the conscience of the piece as Sancho Panza is to Don Quixote. Without Dr. Watson to write it all down, we’d never know about all of Sherlock Holmes's adventures. And Robin Hood would have no one to mourn him without Little John.

A knight’s sidekick could very well be his squire, but since my hero Crispin Guest is no longer the knight he was, there can be no squire as such. Only an orphaned street urchin would be fitting for a man who now had to eke out a life on the mean streets of fourteenth century London. And so Jack Tucker--orphan, cutpurse, thief and street urchin--stumbles into Crispin’s life. More comfortable on the streets and with the low-lifes he and Crispin encounter, Jack is often a go-between. He may be young—eleven when we meet him in the first in the series, VEIL OF LIES—but he’s whip-smart, even though he can’t seem to give up the “habit” of cutting purses, the medieval equivalent of picking pockets (no pockets yet). Jack often humanizes the plight of the poor and uneducated to Crispin who has come from wealthy and intellectual origins, who had no inkling of the lives of his servants on his erstwhile estates anymore than he had a clue about the lives of the people he passed on the streets of London.

We need our literary sidekicks. And it’s even more wonderful when we want to know more about them. What motivates them to play second fiddle to the hero? What sort of rewards can they expect? While Marshall Dillon slinks off with Miss Kitty, what’s Festus up to?

And will Robin ever get to drive the Batmobile?

Crispin writes his own blog (yeah, everyone’s got a blog these days) and he sometimes writes about Jack Tucker.
For more on the newest release in Jeri’s medieval noir series, SERPENT IN THE THORNS, go to


  1. Ah, the allure of those secondary characters. They seem to demand their own books. At least mine do. And I think they're fun because they aren't saddled with the constraints of carrying the book, having proper GMC, character arcs, and black moments.

  2. And it's really handy to have someone for the protagonist to talk to on those quests!

    Tolkien's Frodo and Sam in the Ring Trilogy are another great example (we'll ignore the "classist" implications). I always identified with Sam, who I thought was the true hero of the tale.

  3. You're right, Sheila. I always thought Sam was the far more interesting character.

  4. Jeri - Welcome to Jungle Red.

    What I really want to know about is how you came by all that expertise you must have about the Middle Ages... And how on earth do you come up with dialogue that FEELS medievally to us who have absolutely no idea what they talked even reflect class differences?

  5. That's a big question, Hallie, and I'll try to answer briefly. I was raised in a household of rabid Anglophiles very interested in medieval history, so a lot of the knowledge I come by honestly. Then there was about ten years of writing historical fiction (and researching) and not getting published. So there is a lot already under my belt.

    And actually, we do know what they sounded like, thanks to documents, poetry, and, of course, teh works of Geoffrey Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales gives us sample dialog from people in all walks of life. It was written, however, in Middle English. Aren't you glad I didn't write it in that!

    I compromise and write something that sounds medievally but without the thees and thous. That gets tiresome for most readers. And editors would have chucked it in the bin long ago.

  6. Hey Jeri! Congratualtions on your wild success..

    And I love "no pockets yet." That's one of those wonderful tidbits that makes your books so authentic and fun to read.

    Has there been a mystery from the sidekick POV? Seems like there msut be. I guess maybe the Murder of Roger Ackroyd, huh? Would that be doable? Hmm.

    And nope, Robin will never drive the Batmobile.

  7. I'm actually thinking of trying to write a short story from the sidekick's point of view, Hank, but you don't want them getting too uppity. :)

  8. Would Laurie King's books from the POV of Sherlock Holmes's wife fit that bill?

    And yes Hank, I was struck by the "no pockets" comment too--priceless!

  9. Hmm, really I might spend 300 pages with Crispin if all he did was glower and fret. But I love the mystery! And to start the series with a locked-room, well . . . it's all good. Festus had his embroidery, of course, but Chester was busy applying for jobs in the Big Apple.

  10. Roberta, I think in Laurie's case, Holmes is the setting, but Mary Russell is the star.

  11. Jeri -since you are a self-professed anglophile, I'm sure you are familiar with British murder mysteries. Don't you think the various inspectors have the best sidekicks? D.I. Morse's Lewis, D.I. Lynley's Havers. Foyle's Samantha Stewart! Love the cover of your new book. It's great!