I grew up on adventure stories where many of the heroes were helped by loyal sidekicks. Biggles had Algy; Sherlock Holmes, Watson; the Lone Ranger, Tonto. Back then, before the darker Batman of today, Robin was simply his trusty sidekick.
Until I started writing my own adventure stories, I didn’t really understand why sidekicks were so ubiquitous. I do now.
Sidekicks offer all sorts of benefits to the writer. They can perform tasks that the hero cannot, or which are too tedious to bore the reader with. John Mortimer’s Rumpole, for example, uses a private detective, ‘Fig’ Newton, to produce crucial information to move the plot along. No details are required as to how Newton gets this information and, indeed, the reader doesn’t care.
Traditional adventure stories often break up the action with more light-hearted moments and a sidekick gives opportunities for banter. Sometimes the sidekick himself is a source of amusement. Lesley Charteris’s early Simon Templar stories featured Hoppy Uniatz, a Brooklyn gangster who had somehow (we never quite find out how) teamed up with our hero. His heavy accent is used to accentuate his apparent stupidity but he is unfailingly loyal and a good man in a fight. I find him quite irritating but, back in the 1930s and 40s, readers loved that sort of thing and he was the longest lasting of the Saint’s sidekicks.
The single most useful characteristic of a sidekick, as far as the writer is concerned, is that he provides somebody for the hero to explain the plot to. Imagine Sherlock Holmes without Watson, all those brilliant deductions and the reader having no clue of the basis on which he made them.
James Burke’s sidekick is William Brown. While Burke is constantly on his dignity as an officer and a gentleman (and constantly resentful that he is trapped in the sordid world of espionage), William keeps him rooted in reality. We don’t get given many details of William’s early life but his skills as a forger and his ability with a picklock hint at a criminal past. He joined the army young and remained a private soldier until he was allocated to Burke as, officially, an officer’s servant and, unofficially, as an agent working to him on intelligence missions.
William is intelligent and resourceful and often has to work independently of Burke. (Another advantage of a sidekick is that it enables the author to run parallel story lines when necessary.) Despite this, he is convinced that he would be lost without Burke. He sums up how he sees their respective roles.
“I’m more a hit-them-in-the-goolies-and run-away kind of bloke. I rely on officers like you to write it up all nice afterwards.”Burke and the Bedouin
William Brown and James Burke have both saved each other’s lives on many occasions and they have a real affection for each other, but William would never think of presuming on Burke.
“There was only one bed and William did wonder if he should ask to share it, such an arrangement being common amongst travellers in small inns. In the end, though, he decided not to. The major was a good man and, in his way, a friend, but there were proprieties to be observed between a sergeant and his officer and William Brown was careful to observe them.”Burke at Waterloo
Although William is something of a ladies’ man, he is married to Molly who he met in Buenos Aires [Burke in the Land of Silver]. She keeps a tavern near the Tower where James and William are based when they are in England. James is fond of Molly and is often a guest of the couple when he is in London.
As the series goes on, I find the relationship between William Brown and James Burke a pleasure to write. The relationship doesn’t exactly develop: it’s defined soon after they meet and doesn’t fundamentally change, but writing about their shared experiences and how these strengthen the link between them is one of the aspects of the books that I particularly enjoy.
The Burke books wouldn’t be the same without William Brown. He might officially be just an assistant – a henchman, if you will – but Burke would be the first to admit that the two are a team. Without William Brown, James Burke would be lost. In fact, one story (Burke in Ireland) does see Burke working alone and, though the book ends in a sort of victory, Burke would be the first to admit that things got very messy indeed.
William Brown and the Lines of Torres Vedras
In the latest in the Burke series, Burke is trying to track down a French spy ring in Lisbon in 1810. William is there with him, of course, looking for possible leads in bars while Burke hobnobs with minor aristocrats suspected of betraying their country. William’s mission proves the more dangerous and the poor man is beaten up and tortured. Another advantage of the sidekick, as far as an author is concerned, is that he can suffer the sort of beating that means that he cannot take an active part in the story for a while. That, of course, is trickier if you are the hero but sometimes the villain has to win or there is no jeopardy for the hero to overcome.
Will William recover? Will the villain who tortured him pay for his crimes? And will our intrepid duo be able to save the secret of the Lines of Torres Vedras?
You’ll have to buy Burke and the Lines of Torres Vedras to find out. It’s a thrilling spy story set against the background of the real secret of the Lines, which was a crucial element in Wellington’s strategy during the Peninsular War. Discover more of the history of the defence of Portugal and find out if William ever gets safe home to Molly.