Of sidekicks and locales in classic mysteries and thrillers


I love sidekicks in mysteries and thrillers—like Tonto—who not only clean up the Masked Man’s messes but also give sage advice. Tonto was my go-to. Well, fans of David Robicheaux, the fictional New Orleans and Iberia Parish police detective, will soon be standing in line to buy James Lee Burke’s new novel, which follows the detective’s sidekick, Clete Purcell, on an adventure to sweep up the drug scum of the Crescent City. Burke’s dedicated readers will tell you flat out that he is the best writer of any kind of literary fiction. His writing sings.

In his new book, Purcell is front and center. The story is told from Purcell’s point of view as he pursues a vengeful recalibration of justice against unwholesome fentanyl dealers. So, when some drug thugs savage his beloved Cadillac cruiser, Purcell, with Robicheaux’s assistance, is on the move.

What many readers love about the Robicheaux series is it drips with the romance and grittiness of New Orleans. That got me thinking about some of the most famous and common locales for setting a good old-fashioned mystery. So, let’s look at a few.

The first that comes to my mind is Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, where the rambling escapades of his detective Phillip Marlowe occur. Any mystery reader worth their salt has read “The Big Sleep,” “The Long Goodbye” and “Farewell, My Lovely.”

Nearer home, Elmore Leonard took us deep into the belly of Detroit and the suburbs, but he also moved around a bit with his mysteries, like “LaBrava,” which was set in South Beach, Florida, and “Glitz,” set against the backdrop of Atlantic City and the early days of gambling. Leonard often employed a helper, Grege Sutter, a sort of ersatz location scout, to bring realism to his novels. Sutter would actually move to the setting of a Leonard book and provide the little things that make a book seem real that you could only know by being there, like the rally of Nazis and Klansmen that opened up the book “Rum Punch.” I recently learned that Sutter worked on the line at Oldsmobile before moving to the Detroit area.

Many of today’s finest mystery writers point to John D. MacDonald as early inspiration. In the 1960s and ‘70s, his paperbacks featuring detective Travis McGee could be had in any drugstore for 60 cents or less. McDonald owned the literary mystery genre in that era, and his hedonistic houseboat lifestyle of McGee drew avid readers. He published more than 20 Travis McGee novels set in South Florida.

Steve Hamilton, born and educated in Michigan, managed to create a detective series primarily set in the unusual locale of Michigan’s northern tundra of Sault Ste Marie. His books, which are filled with local color, garnered him three Edgar Awards.

If you travel this summer or visit a local beach, take along a mystery or thriller with local color of some exotic place featuring the mean streets of Paris, New York City, Harlem, or Toronto. Often, mysteries are one of the best ways to learn about a city. Although I’m not much of a world traveler, on a recent trip to Dublin I couldn’t help but think what a wonderful place to set a mystery. Its quaintness melding with its high-tech presence has something for all readers. The pubs, castles, and cobblestone streets are just waiting for more writers to scribble notes on napkins about the sights and sounds of the city.

To my surprise, what did I find when I returned home (or at least I noticed them) were a plethora of books set in and around Dublin like the mysteries of John Banville (writing as Benjamin Black), which capture the feel of 1950s Dublin (which is still very much present despite Google and Microsoft) through the eyes of forensic pathologist Quirke.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the one and only Sara Paretsky, who with her detective VI Warshawski helped put Chicago on the literary mystery map. Paretsky’s books read like love letters to the Windy City and still serve as a pleasant guidebook.

The same can be said about Colson Whitehead’s “Harlem Shuffle” and the more recent “Crook Manifesto.” One line from “Shuffle” still resonates with me: “Everyone had secret corners and alleys that no one else saw…” Whitehead’s protagonist and amateur detective, Ray Carney, is one of the most interesting creations in recent times. And his colorful descriptions of Harlem from 1959 to ‘64 along 125th Street are mesmerizing. In his most recent book, Ray is pulled back into the underworld in search of Jackson Five tickets for his daughter.

And don’t forget to go on a post-World War II tour of L.A. with Walter Mosely in his Easy Rawlins series. His best-known books are “Devil in the Blue Dress” and “White Butterfly.”

Finally, Spencer, Robert B. Parker’s classic hard-boiled detective, is still one of the best tour guides you can find for Beantown. Since Parker’s death, his series has been continued by mystery writer Ace Atkins without missing a beat. Plus, Spencer has one of the best sidekicks going with the sophisticated tough guy Hawk periodically saving the detective’s backside.


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