Wednesday, March 27, 2019


I've articulated my love of certain tropes in crime fiction over the years in various forms of communication. In essays, in reviews , at the bar as the light comes on but today I'd like to talk about one particular trope that is near and dear to my heart.
  I like to call it the Benevolent Psychopath.

In the early days of noir  or hard boiled crime fiction the private detective or master criminal was a lone wolf.  a solitary figure whose silhouette stood out in sharp relief against the backdrop of corruption and nearly insurmountable odds. However as time passed many writers started to give their detectives and master thieves an associate. A sidekick who was unwaveringly loyal and incredibly skilled in various arcane endeavors so as to allow the main character to get on with the act of detecting or stealing or whatever the plot of the story required. These sidekicks were sometimes comic relief. Inspector Queen  or Archie Goodwin come to mind. Other times they were capable partners who lacked the protagonist charm or wit  so they offered a counterbalance to our hero. A ying to their yang as it were.

      As crime fiction and specifically hard boiled crime fiction grew darker and more nihilistic a new sidekick emerged to help our hero deal with the mean streets and the sleazy characters they would encounter. This new breed of sidekick was willing to do things the MC couldn't or wouldn't do. The Benevolent Psychopath was born out of a malaise that seeped into the pages of crime fiction in the early Seventies.
  The great Lawrence Block didn't create this archetype  but I think he was one of the earliest writers to fully understand it's potential. The gregarious Iriah criminal Mick Ballou  is Matthew Scudders best friend, a saloonkeeper and when it's called for a blood thirsty psychopath. One of my simultaneously favorite and most horrifying scenes in the Scudder series is when Mick cuts the head off a criminal who is the son of a criminal he also killed. The garrulous Irishman remarks how much the two dead men look alike.  Mick set the template for the great crazy/cool sidekick who doesn't mind getting their hands dirty. He's fiercely loyal to the MC and he is really really good at killing people.
   Robert B. Parker took the template and gave it an upgrade with the creation of his character  Hawk.
The mononymous  hitman, is as cool as a glacier and as smooth as an onion. He and Spenser share an almost unbreakable bond whose foundations are hinted at but never truly completely explained. This is another facet of the modern benevolent psychopath in crime fiction. We only get hints of as to why the psycho is so devoted to the principal character. Theirs is a friendship forged in blood and darkness.
     I want to mention two more  BP's then I'll let you get back to rage tweeting

       Robert Crais Joe Pike is the benevolent psychopath taken to the Nth degree. A character so taciturn he barely says twenty words in any given book he nonetheless makes his intentions known. Carrying a terrifying name recognition akin to John Wick Joe is not a man to be trifled with and yet he is besties with Elvis Cole a character who never met a corny yet endearing joke he didn't like. Joe is the blunt hammer to Elvis's scapel like wit.
      Walter Moseley upped the ante when he created Mouse. Where Joe is nearly a mute Mouse is a whirling dervish of snappy one liners and barely controlled insanity. He loves Easy but he might just shoot him if he's drunk enough. Yet he won't let anyone touch a hair on the head of his childhood friend. Mouse takes the BP out of the role of sidekick and into a full fleshed unpredictabilty  that makes him unique in crime fiction.
    There are other notable loose cannons in crime fiction. Bubba Rogowski in the Kenzie/Gennerao Dennis Lehane. LuEllen in the Kidd series by John Sanford.. Twitch who appears in the Junior and Boo novels by Todd Robinson.
  When done well the benevolent psycho is a living breathing line of demarcation for our MC. He or she lives in the shadows where our protagonist fears to tread. They are demons that climb out of perdition to do the dirty deeds that must be done but not by our hero. They are the whispering voice of chaos that push our MC to do what the police or the crumbling artifice known as society can't.
  They are the blunt hammers that break down the doors of morality and bade our hero to cross that threshold. And I for one can't wait to see what happens next.

1 comment:

Thomas Pluck said...

I love these guys. Clete was a favorite for goody two shoes Robicheaux. When I created Jay Desmarteaux, my goal was to not do this. He has to be both. He wrestles with the aftermath of being that killer.