Benoit Lelieve, writing in Dead End Follies on March 14, took aim at “Ten Non-Racial Bullshit Stereotypes [He’s] Tired of Seeing.” (Editor’s Note: If you aren’t reading Dead End Follies, well, I don’t know what to tell you. Putz.) I agree in general with the list, the differences not so motivating I feel the need to write up one of my own.
I am inclined to comment at length on one of them. Number Six, to be precise: Friendly Psychopaths, or, as they are so often depicted, the psycho sidekick.
We all know who they are. Mouse. Hawk. Bubba Rogowski. Joe Pike, though Robert Crais has taken some of the edge off Pike in more recent novels. These are the guys who’ll do the stuff the author (or publisher, or, more likely, the marketing department) is afraid to have the protagonist do, lest the readers think less of him. They also serve a valuable role in providing information the protagonist can’t get on his own, sauntering into scenes with a key piece of evidence at just the right time.
The concept is a cheat when done badly, which is too often the case. Hence Benoit’s fatigue with the archetype. When done well these characters can serve a purpose beyond authorial convenience by giving the protagonist a peer to play off of. Yes, Spenser has Susan and Patrick Kenzie has Angie, but there are things they can say and do with Hawk and Bubba they’d rather not discuss elsewhere. Topics such as, “How are we gonna kill this guy?” Angie’s okay for discussing “Should we kill this guy?” and Susan…well, Susan’s mostly a pain in the ass. I never was able to figure out why Spenser discussed anything with her.
Another type of psycho sidekick has sprung up relatively recently, those that are not inherently violent. My favorite example is Sean Chercover’s Gravedigger Peace, sounding board for private eye Ray Dudgeon. (Another Editor’s Note: I know Sean is doing well with his thrillers and I couldn’t be happier for him, but I hope he hasn’t given up on Ray and Gravedigger. That’s a kick-ass combination.) I’m also a big fan of Tommy Owens from Declan Hughes’s Ed Loy series, but Tommy is more of a fuck-up than a psycho. He serves the role of providing information more than does Gravedigger, but both play valuable roles as off-kilter sounding boards for their protagonists.
It’s been a while since I first started writing Nick Forte stories, and the only one of these sidekicks I knew at the time was Hawk, which is fine. He’s the gold standard. I wanted Forte to have a sidekick but wanted the sidekick to be more of an homage to Hawk than a rip-off. Timothy Alston Satterwhite is a man who makes his living by hurting people, yet has a unique affection for Forte and those close to him. The nickname of “Goose” wraps up the homage aspects of his character.
I was always careful not to have Goose do Forte’s dirty work. In the first book, A Small Sacrifice, Goose offers to kill a man who has to die if Forte is to live. They’re not planning a showdown; an execution is in the works. Goose talks to Forte, tells him how it will change him, and how there might not be any going back. Forte can’t bring himself to ask his friend, and then finds he lacks what he needs himself to seal the deal.
Forte’s life and moods become darker as the series progresses. Goose remains the constant, always trying to reel his friend in. It’s been a conscious decision, hoping to do something different with a character who could easily be a stereotype.
I’ve even tried to move the classic relationship in the opposite direction. In Grind Joint, Forte appears as a “guest star,” who happens to be visiting his parents when things break bad in his old home town, assuming the role of psycho sidekick to his cousin, Penns River detective Ben “Doc” Dougherty. My favorite scene between them, in which Nick escalates a confrontation his cousin had under control, ends like this:
“I’m sorry, cuz,” Nick said. Doc knew from his tone he meant it more for him than for himself. “You called the meeting. I should’ve let you run it.”
“It’s okay, Nick. You’re right about shaking their tree. I just didn’t want to put you on the line. There are things about Volkov you don’t know.”
Nick still looked to where Yuri’s car had gone. Some of the light that shone from his eyes, made him a friend to children and dogs everywhere, had disappeared. Doc couldn’t identify what replaced it, and didn’t want to.
“It’s okay, Benny,” Nick said. “There are things about me you don’t know.”
I understand Benoit’s distaste. It’s too easy to use the Friendly Psycho as a crutch. It’s also a valuable archetype in crime fiction. We just have to continue to find ways to keep it vital. I hope I’m succeeding.