We Get a Kick Out of Sidekicks Who Kick Novels into Overdrive

Sidekicks! Whether in real life or literature, the word means partners/assistants who are somewhat lower in rank. Yet sidekicks are often as interesting, charismatic, and comedic as their ostensible superiors — or even more so. And the interaction between sidekick/”sidekickee” — and the way they complement each other or not — can be fascinating.

A new favorite sidekick for me is Robin Ellacott of J.K. Rowling’s fabulous Cormoran Strike mystery novels — the second of which (The Silkworm) I read this week. This Robin to Cormoran’s Batman (?) works for Strike in his modest private-investigation office, but she’s much more than an ultra-competent secretary — she wants to be a private investigator herself, and helps Strike solve cases. Meanwhile, the brave/brainy twosome have a strong (though at times tense) working relationship/friendship that means a lot to both of them.

There are echoes of Rowling’s Harry Potter and Hermione Granger in Cormoran and Robin (Emma Watson, who played Hermione in the Potter movies, even gets a cover-of-a-magazine cameo in The Silkworm), but Ellacott and Strike are very much their own characters in the mysteries written under the pen name of Robert Galbraith.

In older literature, among the most famous sidekicks are Sancho Panza to the eccentric Don Quixote in Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (the two are pictured atop this blog post), Samwise Gamgee to fellow hobbit Frodo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and Dr. Watson to Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective novels and stories.

Panza and Samwise have many similarities — they’re both short, smart, funny, courageous, resourceful, and invaluable to their “masters.” Heck, they’re clearly equal to, or more impressive than, who they’re sidekicking with. Dr. Watson, though far from dumb, seems like almost a lightweight next to sleuth extraordinaire Sherlock. But the genial Watson is an important character — narrating things (much of the time), expressing admiration for/awe of Holmes, etc. He’s in many ways a reader surrogate, and helps ground things in a sort-of reality — like calm servant Nelly Dean does amid the hyper-emotional drama in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

Then there’s Diana Barry, who’s often with best friend Anne Shirley when the initiative-taking Ms. Shirley gets into all kinds of quirky situations in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. The more passive Diana tends to be a reluctant participant.

In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn is a kind of sidekick. Then, in the later Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is the main character — with Tom occupying a secondary role. A sidekick promotion!

Getting back to current fiction, we have Sgt. Frances Neagley in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series. She appears only periodically — Jack often goes it alone, of course — but when she does show up she’s a great help to Reacher as he fights the bad guys. Neagley and Reacher share a military-police background and the qualities of discipline, competence, bravery, loyalty, and…being loners.

Can a character have more than one sidekick? Why not? An example of this would be Dorothy and her three sidekicks: the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

That reminds me that there’s something about the notion of sidekicks that often has them accompanying their “superiors” on a quest, an adventure, a trip to some destination. At minimum, they tend to appear in very plot-oriented novels.

Who are your favorite sidekicks in literature?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about gentrification, rent control, an expensive stairway fix, and more — is here.

Small-Town Novels Can Pay Big Literary Dividends

I’ve spent my whole life living in the city or medium-sized suburbs, so it’s an interesting change of pace for me to occasionally visit small towns — and to more-than-occasionally read novels set in small towns.

We’re all aware of the pros and cons of not-big burgs. Many residents know each other, there can be lots of friendliness, life is calmer, the streetscape and landscape are often pretty, etc. But small-town residents can know TOO much about each other, be mostly homogeneous in race and ethnicity, be narrow-minded in a number of cases, get very bored, etc. And then there’s the possibility of a family having three (or even four) generations in the same community — which can be good or bad.

Still, people who don’t live in a small town might find reading about one fascinating and almost exotic.

I’ve nearly finished a small-town-set novel: Empire Falls, the masterful Pulitzer Prize-winning gem by Richard Russo. Empire Falls, Maine, is going downhill economically, and 42-year-old protagonist Miles Roby isn’t doing so well, either. The diner he operates barely breaks even (at best), his wife Janine divorces him after falling in lust with an obnoxious guy who frequents the diner, Miles’ eccentric father is a total embarrassment, and the rich widow who basically owns the town basically owns Roby, too. Yet there are some wonderful human interactions (such as between Miles and his bright teen daughter Tick) and other positive elements of living in a small town.

That’s certainly the case in Jennifer Ryan’s heartwarming The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, in which many women join together to form a song group while local men are away fighting in World War II. But the novel, set in an English village, is not always sentimental as some devastating deaths occur and some not-nice characters act…not nicely.

Another World War II novel set in a small community is The Moon Is Down — an absorbing, lesser-known John Steinbeck work about a Nazi-occupied town (in Norway?) whose brave residents resist the Germans.

In Zora Neale Hurston’s classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, protagonist Janie Crawford’s unhappy second marriage places her in the small town of Eatonville, Fla. Her nasty/sexist husband becomes mayor there, and also runs a general store with a front porch that becomes Eatonville’s center of social life — but he doesn’t allow Janie to be there. Yes, a small town can be a place that perniciously forces women into “traditional” gender roles.

Things are more idealized in W.P. Kinsella’s Magic Time, which focuses on Mike Houle as he plays for a semipro baseball team in Grand Mound, Iowa. Everything in the tiny burg seems too good to be true — is it paradise, or a gilded cage?

Then there are various Sinclair Lewis novels — such as Main Street — set in small-town America. Those memorable Lewis books tend to satirize those communities for being conservative, resistant to change, and so on, yet some affection for the life there shines through.

Fannie Flagg, whose excellent novels are nearly always set in small towns, depicts those places in mostly positive ways — while not ignoring their downsides. One of her most moving and enjoyable books is A Redbird Christmas, in which the middle-aged Oswald Campbell is ill and miserable in snowy Chicago before finding health, happiness, and love after moving to a diminutive Alabama community.

Of course, many novels feature the opposite migration — from small town to big city as the protagonists search for money, diversity, excitement, a more creative life, and so on. One example is Denise Baudu’s move to Paris in Emile Zola’s compelling Au Bonheur des Dames.

Getting back to Alabama, one of literature’s most famous small-town novels is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The fictional Maycomb (said to be partly based on the real-life Monroeville) is not big, but it has all kinds of things going on — including neighborliness, racism, and kids being kids but also growing up too soon as they see life’s realities. And the characters range from ethical to eccentric to awful. Which proves the obvious point that no matter how small or large a place is, there are all kinds of recognizable people and emotions a novelist can depict.

What are your favorite novels set in small towns?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about a greedy developer crowding my town and making it less diverse — is here.

Crime: All the Time or Some of the Time

The ever-popular category of crime fiction — which can include detective novels, mysteries, thrillers, etc. — has different categories of authors.

There are those writers — such as Raymond Chandler, Lee Child, Agatha Christie, Michael Connelly, Arthur Conan Doyle, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, P.D. James, Walter Mosley, Louise Penny, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Lisa Scottoline — known mostly for their crime fiction, even as they occasionally roam/roamed outside that genre. Then there are authors known more for their non-crime-fiction work, even as they produce/produced some strong offerings in the detective/mystery/thriller realm. This blog post will be about the latter group — which includes people like Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, J.K. Rowling, and Mark Twain.

I’ll first discuss Rowling, who, as “Robert Galbraith,” writes the series starring fascinating private investigator Cormoran Strike. I read the debut installment, The Cuckoo’s Calling, this week — and was bowled over by how smoothly Rowling moved into crime fiction after conquering the young-adult/magical-fiction world with her iconic Harry Potter series and then writing the compelling general-adult-fiction book The Casual Vacancy. Rowling will always be associated more with Harry Potter than anything else, but her versatility is off-the-charts.

Collins is best known for The Woman in White, an ultra-suspenseful mystery; and The Moonstone, an early example of detective fiction. But most of his novels were in the realm of general fiction.

Poe is of course almost synonymous with horror fiction, but he wrote several earlier-than-The Moonstone detective stories starring C. Auguste Dupin — the most famous of which were “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter.”

Twain’s late-career novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, with its important plot-solving element of fingerprint analysis, placed that author somewhat in the crime-solving genre. Two years later, Twain came out with Tom Sawyer, Detective — one of his lesser novels.

Dickens turned to the mystery genre with his last, unfinished book — The Mystery of Edwin Drood — after more than 30 years of penning more general literary works.

Obviously, authors who write crime fiction most of the time can really master that genre, but the potential drawback can be a certain sameness in some of their work. Those pros and cons can of course flip for writers who turn to crime fiction only occasionally.

Any thoughts on the two categories of crime-fiction authors discussed in this blog post? Your favorite works in each category?

(BTW, one reason Jim Grant took the name Lee Child was because that alias alphabetically placed his Jack Reacher novels in libraries and bookstores between the works of crime-fiction greats Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie — just like Child ended up between Chandler and Christie in this blog post’s second paragraph.)

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about overdevelopment run amok in my town — is here.

This Literature Post Contains a Secret Supreme Court Message

Today’s column will be sort of random. What pulls it together is the first letter of every fiction title I’ll mention, because together those boldfaced letters spell out a message by the time you reach the end of this post. Here goes:

Beloved by Toni Morrison. A novel, about the psychological toll of slavery and more, chosen by The New York Times in 2006 as the best American fiction work of the previous 25 years.

Redburn by Herman Melville. The lesser-known but excellent Melville work, published in 1849, about a sea voyage to Liverpool that predated The Beatles.

Evelina by Fanny Burney. A novel about the adventures (romantic and otherwise) of a young woman that’s one of the most readable books of the 18th century.

Three Junes by Julia Glass. An interestingly structured novel with three separate but interconnected parts set in 1989, 1995, and 1999.

Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener. The famous stories-sewn-together-as-a-novel that feels more modern than a 21st-century reader would expect.

Kindred by Octavia Butler. Part science-fiction, part sobering social commentary as a 20th-century African-American woman is repeatedly pulled back in time to the Antebellum South.

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. The best YA novel ever? Could be. About a brainy, spirited orphan girl in 19th-century Canada.

Villette by Charlotte Bronte. Uneven and not as riveting as the author’s Jane Eyre, but still pretty darn good.

Arch of Triumph by Erich Maria Remarque. This memorable novel, set in late-1930s Paris, features a German surgeon refugee who becomes romantically involved.

Native Son by Richard Wright. This riveting novel is a sort of 20th-century version of Crime and Punishment, with the added theme of American racism.

A Is for Alibi by Sue Grafton. The first of the engaging “alphabet mysteries” that star very human private investigator Kinsey Millhone. Sadly, the friendly Grafton (I spoke with her twice on Facebook) died before writing the 26th book.

Underworld by Don DeLillo. A long, sprawling novel that says a lot about the United States in the second half of the 20th century.

Gerald’s Game by Stephen King. I’m in the middle of reading this ultra-suspenseful book — which, though published in 1992, evokes the current Republican “war on women.” Gerald’s bad behavior toward his wife Jessie (and the sexual misconduct of other males in the novel) would make many a vile Republican politician proud.

Hollywood by Charles Bukowski. A hilarious fictionalization of the author’s experience writing the screenplay for the movie Barfly.

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. The great, justly famous historical novel. But while it’s Scott’s best-known work, it’s not his best work.

Silas Marner by George Eliot. Many high-schoolers supposedly dislike this novel, but I think it’s compelling and moving. And quite short for an Eliot book!

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Fascinating satirical novel that can be enjoyed on different levels by kids and adults.

Ulysses by James Joyce. Oops — never read it.

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. So masterful that it became one of the few short-story collections to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel. A boy warily co-exists with an unfriendly tiger when they’re cast away at sea.

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck. The author’s first really successful novel is hilarious and socially astute.

Yet he still was confirmed. 😦

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which puts a local spin on the repugnant Brett Kavanaugh — is here.