As For Killing, Our Servants Will do That For Us

One of the few sorts of literature that does not evade the uglier side of reality is the popular, “airport reading” kind, including crime thrillers, science fiction (particularly “military” science fiction), and the more naturalistic comic strips. Most of the specimens of this broad genre feature a hero who, while sufficiently tough, ruthless, and competent for all ordinary purposes, is also a man of honor and some cultivation, and hence cannot be involved in certain practices, no matter that they may be necessary to the plot and to reader satisfaction. The standard modern way of dealing with such ugly necessities in these stories is to provide the hero with a sidekick—occasionally, more than one sidekick—who does all the nasty business. This permits the hero not only to retain his ethical virginity, but even on occasion to remonstrate mildly with the partner who handles such things, although without suggesting any practical alternatives to the mayhem done on his behalf.

Elderly readers and comic-strip connoisseurs of all ages will recall the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie,” on which the musical “Annie” was nominally based1. In the strip, Annie was under the loving protection of a wealthy tycoon whom she called “Daddy Warbucks,” but known to the world at large as Oliver Warbucks. The totally bald Warbucks, always elegant in dinner jacket and black tie, smoking a cigar and wearing a diamond stud in his boiled shirt, was a tough but honorable industrialist who often encountered, in the course of pursuing his innocent quest for further wealth, some real villains who had to be disposed of2. He personally never even raised his voice in such cases—he didn’t need to, because he enjoyed the services of two utterly loyal and supremely efficient staff members who relieved him of any such necessity. One was Punjab, a bland and vaguely Middle-East giant wearing an enormous turban, an embroidered vest, and harem pants, who dealt with tiresome people by simply throwing over them a sort of blanket he carried; when he withdrew the blanket, the tiresome person had disappeared, and stayed disappeared. The other of Warbucks’ aides was a thin silent man, dressed always in a black suit, white shirt, and string tie, known as The Asp. He too was ready and able to spare his employer from being troubled by the importunate, but his methods of doing so, the strip’s author implied, were best not looked into too deeply; it was mentioned that he was highly expert with knives, but no further details were offered, or required by most readers.

Turning our attention to the modern detective story, we find Robert Parker’s series hero, Spenser, provided with his own dirty jobs man, known simply as Hawk. Hawk combines many of the characteristics of Warbucks’ pair: like Punjab, he is very tall and slightly marginal racially—he’s African-American; like The Asp he has no proper name, only a zoological label, and is expert with weaponry—in his case, guns. And when some villain in a Spenser story, especially one not utterly evil, has to be terminated with extreme prejudice, it is generally Hawk who does the dirty. Hawk is Spenser’s friend, not employee, but is somehow always available when Spenser needs him, and is just as loyal, just as willing to do whatever is necessary to Spenser’s purposes, as Punjab and The Asp were to Warbucks3.

Then there is Elvis Cole, the detective hero of a series of books written by Robert Crais. He too is fortunate enough to have at his beck and call the services of an invincible warrior, one Joe Pike (yet another human weapon bearing the name of a predatory creature), who is ready at a moment’s notice to join the hero in rescuing a kidnapped child or avenging a wronged woman, and leaving behind him whatever number of corpses may be required to accomplish those tasks and gratify the reader4. And one must not overlook Harlan Coben’s protagonist, Myron Bolitar, who lets his friend Win dispose of anyone who’s been, or threatens to be, really nasty. Win does have a full human name—indeed, a very full one: Windsor Horne Lockwood III. But once that name has been mentioned, it is never used again; he is simply “Win,” and that is what he does5.

This tradition of depending on dark alter egos to do the nastier things that have to be done is elaborated further in science fiction. In David Drake’s series of space operas about Lieutenant Daniel Leary, the hero’s ethical purity is preserved by two layers of trouble shooters: the first is his female partner, Adele Mundy, a librarian who also happens to be a super spy and a crack pistol shot who has killed several men in duels; on a second level, both he and she, in turn, have servants who watch their backs and, on their own initiative, perform any really serious battery and homicides that their principals’ welfare demands. Lieutenant Leary’s retainer is a man called Hogg (another selfless, efficient killer whose name suggests that he’s hardly human); the heroine has, as is only fitting, a female for her own attendant assassin, one known simply as Tovera—no animal name for a lady, but nevertheless a one-part artificial label that suggests she is not quite human, a suggestion that Drake goes to some trouble to emphasize.

While considering the comics, which used to be staple reading for all in the days when newspapers were the primary if not sole source of news, and were followed attentively by as many as now follow the soaps on television, we must not forget Mandrake the Magician and Lothar, his man of all work. Lothar was a huge black African, attired in red fez, a sleeveless leopard-skin tunic that left one shoulder bare, apparently to free the adjacent arm for heavy work, and—if memory serves—something like red Spandex shorts. Mandrake’s regular way with miscreants was to make a few mystic gestures that caused them to suffer terrifying and disabling hallucinations, but if heavy lifting was needed, Lothar was always there with his muscles. The case of the Green Hornet and his faithful Kato is a slight variation on the theme; here the hero himself bears the totemistic name, and his retainer, while non-Caucasian and known by a single name as required by tradition, has to settle for being of normal human size. With Big Stoop, the giant who supported Terry of “Terry and the Pirates,” however, we come closer to the standard type: a huge member of an exotic race (as the Chinese were considered in the 1930s) with a strange if not specifically zoological name.

The exotic racial origin of the sidekicks, and their equally exotic names, are emphasized further by the bizarre costumes they wear—totally uncoordinated mixtures drawn from various cultures, historical periods, and social strata—even from both sexes, long before the time when unisex garments became fashionable. The message those costumes sent was we are different; we are exotic; we are alien; we are the Other; what we do is no reflection on you, because we are nothing like you.

Along with males bearing animal names, and males who are members of racial minorities (the Lone Ranger’s Tonto is, with Hawk and Lothar, an example), women seem to be considered fair candidates for the role of the practical, conscienceless servant or henchman who allows the hero to sustain the role of chevalier sans peur et sans reproache. In another series of books by Drake, this one about a brilliant general called Raj Whitehall, it is the hero’s own wife who, realizing that spying, corruption, bribery, torture, and assassination are all necessary to full victory no matter how successful one’s armies are in the field, spares her noble warrior husband not only the task of organizing such things, but even the discomfort of knowing that they are being done on his behalf.

And we merely mention in passing, without further comment, Ishmael’s shipmate Queequeg, and—in a highly attenuated form—Lord Peter Wimsey’s Bunter, Albert Campion’s Lugg, and even Bertie Wooster’s Jeeves. (Bunter and Jeeves, of course, do nothing shameful or even controversial; they are like the sidekicks we have been examining only in taking on difficult or menial tasks from their principals.) The rudiments of this unloading of dirty deeds and the guilt thereof from hero to dark alter ego may even be found in Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and in the split between Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Perhaps also worthy of passing mention would be the standard police interrogation technique of alternating Good Cop and Bad Cop, which has become so well known that suspects being interrogated sometimes comment on their interrogators’ performance in these roles.

One great theme running through all these seemingly incompatible pairings is obviously that of preserving one’s good opinion of oneself by assigning all unsavory doings to someone else. But I think that there is something deeper in this classic and eternal device than mere preservation of self-esteem; it exposes a fundamental and inescapable stratagem of civilization, that of professing high ideals as a first step toward living up to them. Separating our good selves from our bad selves, with all our sins loaded onto the latter, is one of the ways in which we can live with ourselves, and prepare to better ourselves. This mechanism, a vital one if civilization is to progress, is a ratcheting one: we claim certain virtues, then—provided we have the means—we pull ourselves up to a level where we more or less attain the standard of behavior we claimed to have achieved already. Then, means again permitting, we repeat the action: claim still higher morality, and by doing so force ourselves to make an effort to achieve it.

The process often works, but leaves us perpetually open to the charge of hypocrisy, since we are always claiming a virtue we have not actually realized. The young especially are forever discovering, to their shock, anger, and outrage, the hypocrisy of “society” and in particular of their parents. They take this as a personal affront— “they’ve been lying to us!”—and as exposing the rottenness of society. It is usually not until they leave their parents’ house, and start to face the wider world, that they begin to practice “hypocrisy” themselves, and sometimes look a bit more charitably at their parents and their parents’ generation. The practice of off-loading the performance of necessary evils onto others so that we can maintain our own self-esteem is easily recognized in the popular literature we have been reviewing; it is less easily acknowledged in real life. But it is, I suggest, a central and enormously important feature of civilized life, and therefore something that we would be well advised to understand better.

To take just one of many possible examples: we have assigned to the police the task of protecting us from crime, especially violent crime, but we flinch at some of the measures that must be taken if they are to succeed. Our usual way of handling the difficulty is to pass laws and regulations that forbid the police to take harsh measures, or to gather evidence in ways that violate what we regard as civil rights—and then ignore, unless they are too blatant, the inevitable transgressions by the police of those laws and regulations. Our lower-level criminal courts, for the most part, commonly connive at the commission of perjury by police when the accused is obviously guilty, but cannot be convicted on the legally admissible evidence. If the perjured testimony on which an accused is convicted is too blatant, as I said, the conviction may be reversed by an appellate court, which can afford to be more high-mindedly concerned with the civil rights of the accused and with strict legality. Here the appellate court is the hero, the lower court the sidekick. (To avoid misunderstandings: I am neither celebrating nor deploring this situation, but trying merely to observe and report as accurately as I can. Deciding whether you are for or against a practice makes no sense until you see clearly what the practice is.)

In this way, society muddles through; the police and the lower courts do what is necessary to keep crime from getting altogether out of control, and the higher courts intervene when necessary to see that they don’t go too far, and that the necessary minimum of respect is paid to the letter of the law and the high-minded principles that we admire and profess to live by. This is a dangerous high-wire act we are performing here: we cannot stop violating our principles, because those principles are—if they are to be of any use—beyond what is actually possible today, nor can we abandon those principles, because our self-respect and our hope of moral progress requires that we cling to them. This is what is frequently referred to by the young as our “hypocrisy,” and taken to be a condemnation of the society that practices it. It is also a practice that has been described more charitably by the poet who said “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what’s a heaven for.” But however described, the perpetual gap between our professed principles and our actual behavior, and in particular the way we deal with the intense discomfort caused by our awareness of that gap, is one of the keys to the way our society works, and one that I suggest has had nothing like the attention it deserves.

Later addendum, to be inserted at an earlier position

The late Donald Westlake came up with a way of dealing with the light and dark side that is, I think, unique. In his hands the Hero and Anti-hero, or Dark Twin, are never seen together — each has his own series. Writing under his own name, he issued a series of books featuring John Archibald Dortmunder, whose middle name might more appropriately be “Feckless.” Dortmunder is a brilliant planner of criminal capers whose plans always fail, since his brilliance is regularly trumped by Chance and Luck. The woman who lives with him, May, met him when, at an all-time low point in his criminal career, he tried to shoplift some food from the supermarket where she worked as a check-out clerk. His attempt to execute a crime, as opposed to planning one, was so inept that out of pity she refrained from blowing the whistle on him. Later, apparently feeling that such a helpless lamb needed looking after, she moved in with him. (Her compassion for him is expressed in her cooking; she frequently treats him to her pièce de résistance, her famous Tuna Casserole.) The Dortmunder books are funny and ingenious; Westlake was enormously talented at having his hero plan crimes that seem foolproof, and then showing us how the foolproof is regularly defeated by obstinate reality. Dortmunder does no harm, has just enough success in his chosen career to survive, but never strikes it really rich — his life is one that we all think we too are living, when we’re feeling a little sorry for ourselves.

So much for the Good (if ineffectual) Guy; writing under the pseudonym Richard Stark, Westlake wrote another series of crime novels, this one featuring a man known simply as Parker. After all the examples we’re reviewed here, the fact that Parker has but one name should be enough to tell us that he is the Dark or Evil Twin, the one who does all the things that a Dortmunder would never dream of doing, or could do if he wanted to. Parker is physically powerful, utterly ruthless, ready at any moment to kill when his cold intelligence tells him that killing is necessary. He plans crimes thoroughly and realistically, but often sees his plans at least partially defeated by the cowardice, treachery, or simple incompetence of the confederates he is forced to work with; the plots of the Parker books are usually less to do with the planned crime itself, which takes up only the first quarter or so of the book, than with Parker’s recovery from the failures of his accomplices.

He too lives with a woman, but she is no May; while not quite a gun moll, she is a sophisticated woman who is aware in a general way that her man is engaged in pursuits that must not see the light of day, and takes care not to know more. She finds him exciting, and a provider of furs and jewels, and in return gives him all sorts of practical help, but never participates directly in any of his crimes. The Parker books are ingeniously plotted, like all Westlake’s crime stories, but are utterly humorless and unapologetic about Parker’s ways. Because Parker is always having to make do with unreliable partners, and has to work so hard to repair the damage they’ve done, deliberately or accidentally, to his plans, the reader is regularly seduced into rooting for this cold sociopath and murderer; his life is one that we all think we too are living, when we’re feeling impatient with the kind of people we have to put up with.

Westlake did try the experiment of bringing Good and Bad together in a single character, and apparently felt it was a failure; he wrote only four books in that vein, which for Westlake amounted to just dipping a toe in the water. These four stories have for their protagonist a man whose full name is Alan Grofield, but regularly called simply Grofield, as Parker is just Parker (and Parker appears in at least one of the Grofield books). He is by choice and vocation an actor, but having found that one can hardly make a decent living as a sometime actor, he takes up crime as a way of keeping body and soul together between gigs. The Grofield books have both some of the modesty and humor of the Dortmunder books and some of the harsh and brutal action of the Parker series — people get killed in them, and Grofield himself cannot always be Mr Nice Guy, although he is not a sociopath. The Grofield books are as entertaining as either of Westlake’s main series, but it seems clear that Westlake was not fully comfortable with the synthesis that the Grofield character represents; he felt happier dealing with the extremes, and dealing with them separately, even to the extent of writing about them under two different names himself.

Article Footnotes

1. Iconic 'Annie' comic strip ending after 85 years AP

2. In one strip, Annie mildly questions Daddy Warbucks about his great wealth while so many in the world are poor; he explains to her, with some supporting numbers, that if all his wealth were to be distributed equally to everyone in the world, the amount each would get would be paltry; concentrated in his hands, though, that wealth enables him to do great things, benefitting everyone. This argument is exactly that made by John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (London: Macmillan, 1919), pages 16-19.

3. In Parker’s Stranger in Paradise (2008), whose hero is a police chief, a temporary sidekick becomes available to do the killing the chief cannot do himself; the temp is a self-described Apache warrior called Crow.

4. For what it’s worth, this relationship between Cole and Pike is explicitly denied by Crais. In “Elvis Cole and Joe Pike,” in The Lineup, ed. Otto Penzler (Little, Brown, 2009), page 93, he writes “Nor is Pike simply Elvis Cole’s assassin; a handy-dandy, guilty-pleasure author’s device for getting Cole out of the morally queasy side waters of dropping the hammer on bad guys without benefit of judge, jury, constitutional protections, or hand-wringing after-action remorse.” But reading any Cole-and-Pike story will convince anyone that an author’s intentions do not always realize themselves in his writing.

5. An exchange between Coben’s Bolitar and Win (from One False Move [Dell, 1998], pages 312-313) provides a classic example of the remonstrances that the hero routinely directs at his henchman—after the henchman has done the necessary deed:

“You can’t do that again, Win. You can’t hurt innocent people.”
“Uh-hmm,” Win said again. He checked his watch. “Are you through now? Is your need to feel morally superior satiated?”
“What the hell does that mean?”
Win looked at him. “You know what I do,” he said slowly. “Yet you always call on me.”