The second banana is a time-honored tradition in suspense fiction, dating back at least to Sherlock Holmes’ admiring foil, Dr. Watson. Over the years, countless mystery writers have introduced eager readers to a plethora of unforgettable sidekicks, ranging from hardboiled private detectives to sybaritic mathematicians to aging hippies, plus every gradation in between. At times the second banana has been the chronicler of the adventure; at other times, he is the brawn behind the brains of the lead character; every now and then he is an idiot-savant, asking just the right questions to put our hero back on the right track to solving the mystery. Here, in no particular order, are a few of the more memorable examples:
Hawk: perhaps it is his first name, perhaps his last (some suggest it is neither), not unlike his similarly mono-named employer, Spenser. Robert B. Parker’s intrepid duo are twin sons of different parents, one black, one white, and neither one recognizing any shades of grey. The two met in a boxing match, the proverbial tussle between Superman and God, predictably with no clear winner. Spenser is the hero, nominally, but most readers would, in their heart of hearts, prefer to be Hawk. He is lethally cool, he gets all the girls, and he even gets in a good line or two, occasionally at Spenser’s expense.
Archie Goodwin: the wisecracking babe-appreciating narrator of Rex Stout’s renowned Nero Wolfe series. Nero Wolfe never leaves the house, dividing his time among eating, drinking, tending his beloved orchids, and occasionally, when his cash stash is dwindling, reluctantly putting his brain to work solving mysteries. Archie does all the legwork, takes cheerful and regular potshots at his employer’s sybaritic lifestyle, and occasionally contributes a bit of insight into the mystery. But only occasionally, and even then it is likely to be trumped by Wolfe’s uncanny ability to interpret relevant clues from the comfort of his office armchair.
Meyer: longtime resident of Ft. Lauderdale’s Bahia Mar Marina, in the legendary John D. MacDonald’s influential series featuring Meyer’s neighbor and occasional protégé Travis McGee. Although entitled to the honorific “Doctor” (he is an economist by profession, although largely retired), he demurs politely: “Just Meyer, please.” He is the go-to guy for Travis McGee whenever McGee’s street smarts fail him and he needs the input of someone with “book learnin”. To all indications he is independently wealthy, or at least strongly self-sufficient, although he occasionally shares in the spoils of one of McGee’s well-intentioned “recovery” scams. The amiably ursine Meyer dispenses measured advice over a chess board, piloting McGee back to the morally acceptable path when his libido carries him too far afield.
Tomlinson: the New-Aging hippie compatriot of Randy Wayne White’s Gulf Coast marine biologist protagonist Doc Ford. Tomlinson is ex-CIA, covert ops, witness to and perpetrator of unspeakable acts in a past he tries daily to exorcise with whatever drugs may be at hand. He is, by most measures, an amiably stoned artefact of the sixties. That said, his CIA training has come to Doc Ford’s aid on more than one occasion, and he can be counted on to do the right thing, albeit in his own time, as I’ve noted in past reviews of White’s novels. There is more than a bit of similarity between Doc Ford and Travis McGee, but their respective sidekicks could scarcely be less alike. It would be fascinating to watch a chess game between the two, though…
Joe Pike: the baddest good guy of all, onetime second banana to Robert Crais’ laid back PI Elvis Cole, and now promoted to star of his own books, 2007’s The Watchman, and the upcoming The First Rule. The Cole books are related in the first person by the protagonist, who accords Joe Pike deference and occasionally awe, in addition to strong friendship. The Pike books are written in the third person, in a voice more serious than that of Elvis Cole (who, by the way, makes an appearance as a larger-than-minor character, but by no means a second banana). The taciturn ex-Ranger and ex-cop has grown over the years, from a cartoonish one-dimensional character to a complex and dangerously charismatic protagonist. Maybe this is the reason for the promotion? (Note: rumor has it that Crais intended to kill off Joe Pike after his first appearance, an idea that Pike reportedly rejected out of hand!)