The Role of the Second in Mysteries

There are so many mystery novels that team the main detective with a second individual. For example, the Second might be the detective’s sergeant, a friend, an associate, a member of the police department or a husband or a wife. This person is an able bodied assistant that may help or may even act as a foible to the investigation of the detective.

For several years I lived in a town with a robust textile industry and the local residents could purchase items at company stores where “seconds” were sold. At the entrance to the store a posted sign described seconds as:

an item containing a slight flaw when compared to the original product. This slight flaw does not affect the ability of the product to perform or the overall quality of the product.

Does this same definition apply to the Seconds in mysteries? Do Seconds possess a slight flaw as compared to the detective?

When I take a closer look at Seconds in mysteries I find three recurring characteristics.
First, the person is a staunch defender of their detective and this defense takes two forms. Seconds may occasionally disagree or point out flaws in the person they assist. This information can help the reader understand the detective by learning about their habits and quirks. But this disclosure about the detective’s flaws is reserved for the Second alone. They do not allow others this same liberty of pointing out weaknesses in their detective. And when I say a staunch defender it goes beyond mere words. They will lay down their own life in defense of their detective.  It’s often the Second that runs head first into danger to protect their detective.

The next characteristic of a Second is that their own personality is usually in stark contrast to the detective.  If they are interested in dating and fascinated by the ladies like Archie Goodwin then detective Nero Wolf shows little interest in women. Hercule Poirot prefers staying inside and enjoying fine dining, excellent wines and a good book while his
associate Arthur Hastings prefers outdoor sports and fast cars. If the detective is a lover of opera like Morse then his Sergeant Lewis prefers pop music. If the Second is from the top of society like Nora Charles then our detective Nick Charles knows all the best people from society’s underbelly including the criminal element.

Third, our Second often acts as a red herring. They distract us by offering their own theories on who is most likely to have committed the crime. These suggestions often throw the reader off track, since their theory is not quite right. On the other hand, their theories seem to help the detective to focus and eliminate information where the logic doesn’t work.

Does the Second really have a slight flaw or are their characteristics designed to enhance
the image of the detective and the detective’s ability to solve the crime. Plus, where would the detective be without the defense and help of their Second.

What do you think? Do Seconds have a slight flaw?  Do you have a favorite Second?

What was that?  You’re asking–what about Watson?  I agree –we can’t talk about Seconds
without mentioning Watson from Sherlock Holmes. However, since Watson in many ways defined the role of the Second I’m saving him for his own blog. Stay tuned!


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