Saturday, November 28, 2009


Most of the time, when detectives investigate a murder, they work as teams. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that each detective is safer that way. Also, detectives have different backgrounds, skills and areas of expertise, so pairing them up allows each detective to complement her or his partner’s skills. In crime fiction, having sleuths work together adds that touch of realism to the story. It’s also a very effective way to add an extra dimension to a story; when we get to see how the sleuths interact with each other, this adds another layer of interest. Of course, there are many well-written crime fiction series in which the sleuth works more or less alone. For example, Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole generally works alone. He doesn’t have a regular partner who shares his investigations. That’s also true of Kevin Hughes’ Toby Jenkins. But in series where sleuths work together, the reader gets an “inside look” at the interplay between the sleuths, and that relationship can add much to a story.

Sometimes, the sleuths are both detectives. That’s the case in Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley/Sergeant Havers series. Thomas Lynley is an aristocrat (8th Earl of Asherton). He’s well-educated and moves easily in the highest social circles. On the other hand, Barbara Havers is from the working class. She’s got a quick temper and a lot of anger, and she’s had many struggles to get to the position she has. When the two first work together in A Great Deliverance, their relationship starts out as more full of friction than cooperation. Havers doesn’t work well with partners to begin with (in fact, she’s told that this is her last chance to work well with someone, or she’ll be demoted). What’s worse, she thinks Lynley is snobbish and, like all other “bluebloods,” will do whatever it takes to protect the position of the upper classes, even if it means that members of that class get away with murder. For his part, Lynley regards Havers as an insubordinate, uneducated frump. As the novel progresses (and even more so as the series progresses), the two come to respect each other. Lynley learns that Havers has a solid instinct about people, and is “street smart,” as well as mentally quick. Havers learns to respect Lynley’s intelligence and his commitment to justice, no matter who’s committed a murder. The two learn to work together, although they do clash at times.

Another pair of detectives that complement each other well is Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse and Detective Sergeant Lewis. Morse is from the upper middle class and has some university education. He’s brilliant and has no patience with minutiae, especially when those details seem to slow him down. Lewis, on the other hand, has a working-class background. He’s intelligent, too, and sometimes resents it when Morse discounts what he says. Lewis is hardly plodding, but he does pay more attention to routine, procedure and other details than his superior. The two come to depend on each other very much throughout the series, and what’s especially interesting is that as Morse’s character develops, we see his growing realization of how much he values Lewis. For his part, Lewis is willing to brave his cantankerous boss because he admires Morse’s brilliance and his commitment to finding out the truth – even if Lewis is stuck paying more than his share of Morse’s pub tabs.

There are, of course, many other excellent mystery series that feature two detectives. Sometimes, though, sleuths who work together aren’t on the police force. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Captain Arthur Hastings are a classic example of this kind of pair. Poirot is somewhat eccentric and brilliant. He has a keen insight into psychology, and is able to put together the pieces of a mystery puzzle more quickly than almost anyone else. Many people have considered Hastings a sidekick, and he is in the sense that he’s not officially a private detective. He and Poirot aren’t hired as a pair. It’s therefore easy to discount his value to Poirot, but Poirot himself doesn’t make that mistake. At times, Poirot gets impatient with Hastings’ somewhat sentimental outlook and failure to perceive what Poirot sees right away. However, Poirot values Hastings for his insight into the way ordinary people think. He also admires Hastings’ sense of fair play (although he doesn’t always “follow the rules” himself), and he trusts Hastings. More than once, he thanks Hastings for his perspective and in The ABC Murders, he says that Hastings has prevented him from the “unforgivable sin” of overlooking the obvious. Hastings is often in awe of Poirot’s brilliance, but he recognizes Poirot’s faults, and sees him as a human being who’s far from perfect. As a pair, they complement each other well.

We see an even clearer example of this in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Wolfe is the brilliant, reclusive eccentric who’s able to put the pieces of a puzzle together just by thinking – much like Hercule Poirot. In fact, he never leaves the New York brownstone he calls home. Archie Goodwin, who’s also a private detective, is “street smart” and has strong social skills. He’s able to get information and documents, and Wolfe depends on him to get the kind of information that only comes from talking to people. Goodwin is also able to convince sometimes-reluctant people to come to the brownstone and meet with Wolfe. Wolfe and Goodwin are well-matched, and each respects the other.

One of the most interesting (and seemingly mismatched) pairs of non-law enforcement sleuths is Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, the sleuths in Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy. Blomkvist is a financial reporter who publishes Millenium magazine. As The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (the first novel in the series) opens, a conviction for libel has ruined Blomkvist’s career, so he accepts a lucrative commission from wealthy Henrik Vanger. The commission is to find out what happened to Vanger’s great-niece, Harriet, who disappeared forty years earlier. To solve the mystery, he works with his research assistant, Lisbeth Salander. Salander, who has a harrowing past, is in her twenties. She’s a social misfit, a kickboxer, a punker, and a genius at computers.Throughout the trilogy, these two very different people, each in a different way, uncover a number of long-buried family secrets, corruption among Sweden’s most powerful people, and some ugly conspiracies.

It’s also quite interesting when a police detective works with an amateur to solve cases. That teamwork allows the pair to use the machineries of the law as well as the amateur’s special skills or familiarity with the people or context of the mystery. One example of this kind of partnership is that of Oxford history don Daniel Kind and DCI Hannah Scarlett in Martin Edwards’ Lake District series. In that series, Scarlett heads up the local Cold Case Review team, so her team is called in when there’s new evidence in an old murder case, or when a disappearance is proved to have been a death. Her work in the Lake District brings her into frequent contact with Kind, who’s recently bought a cottage in the area. His interest in old mysteries is natural, given his background, and he often has insights into cases that help Scarlett and her team. They, on the other hand, have access to databases and other tools, as well as the authority of their positions as law enforcers. Scarlett’s and Kind’s skills complement each other, and that makes for effective teamwork, even though they each pursue cases from different angles.

Martha Grimes’ Inspector Richard Jury and Melrose Plant are another very successful professional/amateur sleuth team. Inspector Jury is a professional policeman who has investigative skills and the weight of the law as he solves crimes. Melrose Plant is a part-time academician and aristocrat (although he’s renounced his title). We really see the complementary skills of this team in their first pairing, The Man With a Load of Mischief. In that novel, two men are murdered in the small town of Long Piddleton. They are, apparently, strangers in town, and there doesn’t seem to be a motive for their murders. Jury is called in to investigate. He’s an outsider, though, so he doesn’t have the “insider’s” perspective that Melrose Plant does. Plant suspects that someone in town actually knew the two men, and that their deaths weren’t the work of an outsider, as everyone wants to believe. Plant’s insights and Jury’s investigative skill make these two a very effective team.

I’ve only mentioned a few of the many sleuth teams whose teamwork and complementary skills help them solve crimes. When sleuths work as teams, that relationship adds an interesting dimension to a mystery novel. It also adds an effective “story across stories.” Finally, teamwork can add a layer of suspense, especially when there’s conflict between the sleuths.

What’s your view? Do you enjoy novels that feature a pair of sleuths? Or do you prefer your sleuths to “go solo?”


  1. I love sidekicks! For one thing, they help me to know what's going through the sleuth's head. I usually need some help when I'm trying to solve the puzzle. Otherwise, we could end up with not a lot of info or a lot of internal monologue (which I'm not as much a fan of.)

    I love the sleuths and sidekicks you mention above. They really do set each other off so well.


  2. I like a pair of sleuths. They play off of each other and gives them more depth and character I think. I like the pairing of a detective with an amateur, best. That was it can be very serious or with a little humor without making the detective look bad (unless you want to).

  3. On balance I think I do prefer teams or duos to solo operators - I think it adds more scope for character interaction, especially for a series. You're right about it being best when the two are quite different. A few months ago I read the first of Chris Grabenstein's John Ceepak mysteries and one of the things I really loved was the way Ceepak (experienced, ex-army, very moral) was balanced by his sidekick Danny Boyle (younger guy, no police experience, still finding his feet). I think I'd have been a bit bored if only one of them had appeared and also I think having the two different perspectives offered the author more opportunities for plot threads than if only one of those viewpoints had appeared in the story. And, as you say, part of the reason I've already downloaded book 2 in the series is that I'm curious to see how the relationship between the two has developed.

  4. Elizabeth - You make a very well-taken point. When sleuths work together, each gives us insight on what the other's thinking. That gives the reader some helpful clues. Teams of sleuths use dialogue, too, which, as you say, is more engaging than an internal monologue is. I think dailogue keeps the reader's interest in ways that internal monologue can't.

    Mason - You're right. When the sleuths have different kinds of personalities and different skills and backgrounds, they do play off one another and balance each other out. I hadn't thought about that advantage of having and amateur and professional sleuth work together, but it does make sense. That does let the writer decide how serious or humorous the tone of the novel will be.

    Bernadette - I agree; it's really interesting to explore the interactions of a pair of sleuths and watch their relationship evolve. That's especially true when the two have very different personalities and backgrounds. Thanks for your Ceepak/Boyle example, because it's exactly the sort of pairing that can make for a fascinating series that way. I felt that way, too, after the first pairing of Elizabeth George's pairing of Lynley/Havers and after Martin Edwards' The Coffin Trail. You also make a well-taken point about plot threads. There are all kinds of possibilities for subplots, background scenes and other interesting plot threads when you've got a pair of sleuths.

  5. I like either - solitary sleuths or partnerships. There are so many fascinating dynamics to be explored, especially when the partner turns out to be the baddie which I am sure has happened in more than one series!
    Harry Hole did have a regular partner....and still would had events not turned out as they did (Redbreast). Sob.
    I remember Rebus and Siobhan's partnership quite fondly - she started out as quite minor (Rebus had another long-term partner who left the force after a few books), but gradually Rebus came to respect her and to drop many of his previous sexist attitudes. There was one novel in particular, not one of the better Rebuses, where Siobhan did all the computer work because Rebus didn't understand it. By the time the series ended, one felt Rebus fully respected Siobhan, who took a much more central role in the investigations, while Rebus himself was sidelined owing to his inability to evolve with "modern policing".
    I have not been able to read many novels by Helene Tursten, but in the most recent one of those, Irene is partnered with a much younger policeman, and that pairing has all the hallmarks of an interesting one.
    I've enjoyed Ruth Rendell's Wexford/Burden partnership over the years, particularly in the earlier days when Burden was a more prickly, prejudiced character yet faced with domestic tragedy when his wife dies of cancer, then he marries an attractive strong feminist (a teacher) who somewhat (but not entierly) reforms him. So a nice "double partnership" novel (Also Wexford's partnership with his wife, Dora, is attractive, and the four characters often socialise in the books).

  6. Maxine - Thanks for your comments about the Harry Hole novels. As you can tell by my post, I haven't read a lot of the Harry Hole series, and not that trilogy (although now I absolutely must)!.

    I'm also very glad you mentioned John Rebus and Siobhan Clarke's partnership. I almost mentioned them, myself, but I don't like my posts to go on and on. Many people think of Rebus as a loner, but you're right; Clarke does become an important character in the Rebus novels, and they do form a fascinating partnership. I like Clarke's work in The Falls, where her computer skills play such an important role. And yes, Wexford and Burden make a good pair, too, as do Wexford and Dora. You always bring up such great examples! I've not read Tursten, but the partnership you mention does sound interesting.

  7. Great post, Margot. I like both types of detectives. The solo detective, at times, has more tension because there's less chance of them being rescued by their partner in the story climax. I like the interplay and contrast between the duos or, in the example of Foyle's War (set in WWII UK), the trio. There we have gentle Inspector Foyle, his very proper young woman driver, and his somewhat war-tormented-and-maimed Sergeant.
    Thanks for making me consider these ideas, Margot!

  8. Bobbi - You're absolutely right that both a solo sleuth and duo (or trio) can add to the tension. The solo sleuth may face more danger, as you say, but there's a real opportunity for interaction, subplots, etc., with more than one sleuth. Thanks also for the mention of Foyle's War. I've heard of the series, but never been able to see it where I live. I'll have to see if I can find the DVD somewhere...

  9. The tradition of having two detectives is very strong because of Holmes and Watson. I see that one of the lone wolf detectives [after Archer's murder in Maltese Falcon has reincarnated in a prequel duo Spade and Archer by Joe Gores. But the Ed McBain 87th precinct books had a full team of detectives, as did the Martin Beck books and this allows the author so much more leeway in character and plot development.
    Arnaldur Indridason has a permanent trio of detectives Erlendur, Sigurdir Oli and Elinborg [a woman] and this makes for good interplay between them.
    Andrea Camilleri's Salvo Montalbano has a full team to back him up of varying skills and abilities and occasionally uses a glamourous Swedish civilian Ingrid when he needs a good driver.
    I think they all work well but writers who want a very long running series to keep fresh should have a team of detectives, with three or more characters, and use them wisely.

  10. Norman - You're absolutely right that having a set of detectives keeps a series fresh. It's interesting to get new perspectives and it's realistic. There are, as you say, also lots of opportunities for plot development, character interactions and more.

    You've given some great examples, too, of sleuths who are supported by teams; that's part of what makes those series well-done. I confess to not being really familiar with Indriðason, but you're right about Salvo Montalbano's team. In the end, a good plot doesn't necessarily need a pair (or team) of detectives. But a series can really benefit from more than just one sleuth on a case.