The Psycho Sidekick in PI Fiction by Dave White

It’s a pleasure to welcome Derringer Award-winning author Dave White back to the site. Blind to Sin, the latest entry in White’s series featuring New Jersey-based ex-cop turned private investigator Jackson Donne (following last year’s An Empty Hell), is out now, and White stopped by to talk about the concept of the psycho sidekick that crops up so often in PI fiction, as well as to explain why he went in a different direction with his series.

Dave WhiteThe Psycho Sidekick in PI Fiction

Hawk. Win. Joe Pike. Bubba Rogowski.

These characters aren’t exactly Robin to their books’ Batman.

I love the psycho sidekick in private investigator fiction. Sure, he’s usually a bit of a cheat. He takes the onus off the private investigator, doing the nasty stuff and keeping the hero’s conscience clean. I don’t love that part—no. But usually they are very compelling characters.

Hawk, the granddaddy of them all, started out as a villain in Robert B. Parker’s Promised Land. But Parker, and Spenser, clearly saw potential in the champagne drinking former boxer and brought him back to help out Spenser in the following novel, The Judas Goat. We don’t know much about Hawk, throughout the series. Bits and pieces here or there, but mostly Hawk just is.

And that’s what makes Hawk cool. He shows up, does what Spenser needs him to do, and then goes back about his business. Hawk is arguably more Parker’s signature creation than even Spenser is.

For a long time, Robert Crais took the same path with Joe Pike. Pike was the mysterious former Marine who did the dirty work Elvis Cole couldn’t—or wouldn’t—do. But, in one of the greatest PI novels of the past 20 years—L.A. Requiem—Crais started to peel the onion. We learned more about Joe Pike to the point where he actually headlined some of the more recent books, with Cole taking the side role. Pike was given more depth than any psycho sidekick I can think of. He was actually no longer a sidekick, but a co-lead instead.

When I started my own private investigator series, I promised myself I wouldn’t give Jackson Donne a psycho sidekick. It was my intention to have Donne do the dirty work himself, and the soul of the previous four books have been about Donne trying to keep himself sane—in a way. He knows that anytime he gets himself into a new case, people usually die.

At the end of the last book (yes, SPOILERS), An Empty Hell, Donne imprisons himself. He feels he needs to be punished for all the death he’s been surrounded by. And, he sees someone who works cases better than he does.

You see, instead of creating my own psycho sidekick for Donne, I decided to create someone whose hands are a bit cleaner (but definitely not spotless) than Donne’s. In fact, Matt Herrick—another Jersey PI—doesn’t even use a gun. And compared to Donne, he’s a saint. Like Hawk and Pike are the darker mirror images of the PIs they work with, Herrick is what Donne wants to be.

And now, in the latest book, Blind to Sin, Herrick and Donne have to contend with a situation where keeping their hands clean won’t solve anything. And they are forced to face the dirty side of the private investigator business again.

If only they had their own Hawk, Win, Bubba or Joe Pike.

It would certainly make life easier for the two of them.

But who wants to read about easy these days?

Dave White is a Derringer Award-winning mystery author and educator. Publishers Weekly gave the first two novels in his Jackson Donne series, When One Man Dies and The Evil That Men Do, starred reviews. Both When One Man Dies and The Evil That Men Do were nominated for the prestigious Shamus Award, and When One Man Dies was nominated for the Strand Critics Award for “Best First Novel.” His standalone thriller, Witness To Death, was an ebook bestseller upon release and named one of the Best Books of the Year by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.


  • Dana King

    March 14, 2017 - 12:34 PM

    “But who wants to read about easy these days?”
    Intriguing last line there, as the first “psycho sidekick” I remember is Mouse from Walter Moseley’s Easy Rawlins books. Mouse really is a psycho; even Easy is afraid of him. It makes for a great, edgy, dynamic.

    You’re right on the larger point: psycho sidekicks can be a cheat. I have one in my PI stories, but bend over backward to try to make him the conscience for my PI. Even though the sidekick is willing and able to do violence, he’s the one who cautions against it. You’re also right that Hawk is the greater creation, and in many ways the more interesting character than Spenser. I don’t know how familiar you are with the SPENSER FOR HIRE TV series. It was a pretty good show, but the reason to watch was Avery Brooks’s portrayal of Hawk, far more than Robert Urich’s Spenser.

    • Dave White

      March 14, 2017 - 8:07 PM

      Hey Dana,

      Unfortunately for me I haven’t read enough Mosely. Just two books. I don’t feel comfortable commenting on Mouse, but I know he’s a big one. Also, I don’t always think of the sidekick as a cheat, but the cliched ones often come up like non-characters and just violent nutjob deux ex machina. I love Avery Brooks portrayal of Hawk and how Bubba comes off in Gone Baby Gone for instance. Great characters. Thanks for the comment.

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