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A Guide to Knowing Whether You’re the Detective or the Sidekick in a Mystery Novel

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Carolina Ciucci


Carolina Ciucci is a teacher, writer and reviewer based in the south of Argentina. She hoards books like they’re going out of style. In case of emergency, you can summon her by talking about Ireland, fictional witches, and the Brontë family. Twitter: @carolinabeci

We can’t all be Auguste Dupins or Miss Marples. If we were to appear in our very own mystery novel, some of us would undoubtedly be relegated to the role of the sidekick: we’d be John Watson, or worse, Arthur Hastings. We’d muck up every crime scene, confess our suspicions of the butler to the actual murderer, and be dumbfounded when our clever detecting scheme came very close to getting us killed.

It might be hard for the ego, but it’s best to face reality now, before we receive an invitation to spend a week in a country manor and set ourselves up to be the first dead body.

But…what if you are the detective? In that case, you need to hurry up and get ready for the myriad of crimes that are about to surround you. If you’re not prepared, who will solve them? The professionals? Please. The world needs you. The sidekicks need you. The readers need you.

Oh, you aren’t sure how to tell whether you’re the detective or the sidekick? Well, that is what this handy guide is for.

Are you a fan of detective novels?

If you answered yes, I’m sorry to tell you, you’re 100% the sidekick. Every true detective knows that mystery novels feature hacks who couldn’t detect a poultry thief, let alone a murderer. In Sherlock Holmes’ words, a detective novel “might be made a text-book for detectives to teach them what to avoid.”

Are you unusually skinny, in possession of a dashing moustache, or boast some other distinctive physical trait?

Good! You have one of the defining characteristics of the detective. Don’t celebrate too soon though: you can’t be ultra handsome or strikingly beautiful. The distinctive physical trait ought to make you stand out in some way, but if you’re too good-looking, you can’t possibly be smart enough to solve crimes. If you have an egg-shaped head, however, that’s a dead giveaway that you’re the detective. Congratulations and detect on.

Do you think that every attractive woman you meet secretly wants you?

Yeah, sorry. You’re the sidekick, and she’s just being nice.

Do you annoy every character in the book with your ego?

Odds are good that you’re the detective! If everybody around you is irritated by your excellent opinion of your own abilities, you’ll most likely make them regret their doubts by the last page. Bonus points if Scotland Yard officials give you a patronizing lecture about leaving detecting to the professionals at least once.

Do you annoy every reader of the book with your ego?

Mystery readers aren’t annoyed with the detective’s ego because we know it’s well earned. But the sidekick? All talk, no results. Keep it humble.

Do you have a flair for the dramatic?

You might very well be the detective. If you know how to keep your deductions to yourself until the exact moment where revealing them will cause the most drama, there’s a touch of Poirot in you. Be sure to brush up on the anatomy of a parlor room murder scene, though. Just in case.

Do you keep a journal?

It’s very likely that you’re the sidekick, I’m afraid. But keep it up: your writing habit will be the ideal conduit for the detective’s exploits to shine. Who knows? Maybe in a century or two, there’ll be a famous TV show about the two of you, and you’ll become half of a bonafide ship.

Does crime follow you around?

You might live in the world’s most boring village, fake your own death, or retire (twice) to grow vegetable marrows. No matter. If crime follows you everywhere you go, you’re without a doubt the detective (unless you’re the criminal and doing the crime, but that’s another guide for another day).

Now that you’ve solved the mystery of whether you’re a detective or a sidekick, you’re ready to step into the first pages of your novel! But proceed with caution: if you’re the detective and you’re finding it hard to solve the crime, try and be sure of the mystery sub-genre you’ve landed into: knowing the pertinent tropes and themes might make all the difference between successfully solving your case and being relegated to the sidekick leagues.