Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Lean On Me...*

There’s a special relationship that develops between police detectives who work as partners. Very often, they spend at least as much time with each other as they do at home – sometimes more. And police partners come to know one another very, very well, even if they’re quite different in personality. They depend on one another, too, sometimes even having to trust one another with their lives. So it’s not surprising that the police partner bond is often a very strong one. That’s as much the case in crime fiction as it is in real life, and it’s interesting to see how those partnerships play out, especially over time in a series. Of course, there are many, many examples of fictional partnerships between pairs of sleuths who aren’t in law enforcement (e.g. Holmes and Watson, Poirot and Hastings) and pairs where one’s in law enforcement and the other isn’t (e.g. Wimsey and Inspector Parker, Inspector Jury and Melrose Plant). But the bond between law enforcement partners is arguably unique.

We see this kind of partnership, for example, in Rita Mae Brown’s Mrs. Murphy series, which features her sleuth, Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, postmistress for tiny Crozet, Virginia. Law enforcement in Crozet is supervised by Sheriff Rick Shaw and Deputy Sheriff Cynthia “Coop” Cooper. They’ve known each other for several years, and work together on a number of cases. When they’re interviewing witnesses and suspects, they support each other, and “behind the scenes,” they share ideas and give each other different perspectives on their cases. For Coop, it was a challenge to win Shaw’s respect; she was the first woman on the local force, and he wasn’t exactly hoping she would succeed. She’s earned his trust and respect through her perseverance, bravery and dogged determination. She also has solid flashes of intuition. Coop respects Shaw for his commitment and his sense of ethics. He has a strong sense of fair play, as well as a lot of intelligence and shrewdness about the cases they investigate. Their partnership is interesting, too, in that it doesn’t involve anything romantic. Shaw is happily married and, although Coop is single, she doesn’t have an interest in Shaw. In fact, he encourages her to date, and find someone special.

Another interesting police partnership is the one that develops between Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis. Morse is Lewis’ superior, so in that sense, it’s not, technically, a partnership. Yet, as the series progresses, we find that in all of the ways that really matter, the two are partners as much as they are boss and subordinate. Lewis admires Morse’s brilliance and his ability to solve even the most difficult of cases. For his part, Morse depends on Lewis quite a bit, more, in fact, than he cares to admit. Lewis is the one who keeps up on departmental policy, organizes the information they get on the cases they investigate, and often gives Morse important information and ideas. He also takes a very practical view of their cases, and this is also very helpful to Morse. In fact, Morse usually specifically requests that Lewis be assigned to work with him.

In Ian Rankin’s John Rebus series, we also see a strong police partnership develop between Rebus and Siobhan Clarke, especially in the later novels, when Clarke “comes into her own,” so to speak. Clarke admires Rebus for his ability to put together seemingly disparate pieces of a puzzle to solve cases. She’s also learned a lot of the “ins and outs” of the police system from Rebus. For his part, Rebus depends quite a bit, especially later in the series, on Clarke’s computer and technical skills. He also depends on Clarke to do a lot of the “legwork” in getting information on the cases they work together. It’s especially interesting to see the way Rebus and Clarke work as partners when Rebus is suspended (e.g. in Resurrection Men and Exit Music) and Clarke serves as his “eyes and ears” within the department. In those novels in particular, we can really see the ways in which they depend on each other.

Marshall Karp’s series featuring Mike Lomax and Terry Biggs is also a clear example of the unique bond that police partners form with each other. Lomax and Biggs are L.A.P.D. detectives who first work together in The Rabbit Factory. In some ways, they’re quite different; Biggs, a transplant from New York, is a would-be comedian. He’s a loyal and devoted father and husband, and more driven than his partner. Lomax often serves as Biggs’ foil, although he has plenty of wit himself. He’s more introspective and reflective than his partner is. Throughout the series, we see how these partners support each other and help each other, both on and off the job. For instance, in The Rabbit Factory, Lomax is coping with the death of his wife, Joanie. As Lomax mentions, his partner was there for him at the time of Joanie’s death, and Biggs is one of the few people who knows that Joanie left a set of letters for Lomax, one to be read each month for the first year after her death. Lomax and Biggs’ partnership is an authentic illustration of how police partners work together and support each other.

There’s also a very interesting police partnership in Mark Richard Zubro’s Paul Turner/Buck Fenwick mysteries. Turner and Fenwick are Chicago police detectives. They’re two of their precinct’s most experienced detectives, and are often given difficult cases and cases that are bound to attract a lot of media attention. In some ways, they’re quite different. Fenwick is far less diplomatic than Turner, and sometimes gets in trouble because of his lack of tact. Turner is more reflective than Fenwick is, but this doesn’t mean that Fenwick doesn’t think clearly or is unable to put the pieces of a puzzle together. Fenwick, who’s married, is what you might call a more “macho” type, while Turner is the gay father of two teenage sons. Turner is more detail-oriented than Fenwick, while Fenwick tends to be more casual in his approach. Still, Fenwick and Turner have a real liking and respect for each other, despite their differences. They cover for each other when one or the other has a home emergency, and they get along well with each other’s families. As interesting as the mysteries in this series is the way that Turner and Fenwick’s relationship develops over time, and the way that the two of them support one another.

There are, of course, lots of other examples of the strong development of police partnerships. Space doesn’t allow me to describe them all. There are also some interesting examples of groups of police officers who work together. For example, Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct team members don’t always work with the same partners. Still, they all work together. Detective Steve Carella, who’s often (although not always) featured in the 87th Precinct novels, is partnered with a variety of colleagues. He works most often with Meyer Meyer, Bert Kling and and Cotton Hawkes, but really, all of the precinct detectives work together and support each other.

That’s also true of Dell Shannon’s Luis Mendoza series. Mendoza is captain of the L.A.P.D. Central precinct, and he and his team of detectives often investigate several murders at once. The detectives don’t always pair up with the same partners. Rather, they work as a team. It’s actually one of the first series where the author looks at a whole precinct, rather than just one detective or a pair of sleuths.

The bond that forms between police partners can add a strong layer of interest to a story. It’s even more interesting in a series, as we get to see this relationship develop over time. It’s realistic, too. Over time, detectives who are partnered really do often develop a strong relationship. On the other hand, the stereotype of the “cop buddies” can be clichéd and overdone. What’s your view? Do you enjoy “detective partner” novels? Which are your favorites?

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Bill Withers song.

P.S. If you're kind enough to read Confessions of a Mystery Novelist on a regular basis, you know that I mention Agatha Christie's work in every post. I didn't reference her novels today, because she didn't really focus on police partners and the bond that develops over time between police detectives. Rather, we meet several detectives in her novels, and they don't always work with the same people. It is interesting that her work didn't really focus on that aspect of police work. Still, in novels such as Dead Man's Folly, we do see examples of detectives working as a team.


  1. Interesting that Agatha Christie didn't focus on police partners in her many novels. That's one of those things that you take for granted. The partners and their interaction can be a major part of the storyline. Interesting post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Most of the series that come to my mind feature boss/subordinate relationships. I enjoy reading about Lynley/Havers, Wexford/Burden and Adam Dalgliesh and his many subordinates, particularly Kate Miskin. As with Rebus and Clarke, having a female partner brings a new dimension to the relationship between Dalgliesh and Miskin.

    One relationship that I find interesting is that between Andy Dalziel (another AD!) and Peter Pascoe in Reginald Hill's books. While, in most series, the superiors are more intellectual and the subordinates more down-to earth, the reverse is true in the case of Dalziel and Pascoe. Pascoe is the more educated and cerebral of the two, while Dalziel is rather crude and insensitive (though a nice person at heart).

  3. Mason - Thank you : ). I think it's interesting, too, that Christie didn't focus on police partnerships. You're right; it's easy to take those partnerships for granted, but they can add to the story. It's also interesting to see how they develop over time, even when there's conflict at times. I think it can add interest to a plot.

    Book Mole - There are a lot of boss/suboridnate relationiships in crime fiction. You've mentioned some of the most interesting ones. And you're right; it adds a different dimension when the partner is of the other sex. It's only hinted, for instance, that Rebus and Clarke had any attraction to each other, but the fact that they might have adds some interest.

    Funny, I hadn't thought about the "A.D." thing. I think I'm going to have to do a post sometime about names. There are some interesting similarities of names in crime fiction, and there are even some names that appear in more than one story - from different authors. Maxine at Petrona has pointed out a similar thing. Time to look into that, methinks. And yes, Dalziel and Pascoe have an interesting relationship, and even though they're superior/subordinate, one can still see their interdependence.

  4. Duncan and Gemma's relationship in Deborah Crombie's books was interesting. They tried to keep their romantic relationship under wraps for a while.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  5. Elizabeth - You're right; Duncan and Gemma have a really interesting partnership. At first, it seems they don't even want to admit to themselves that it's a romance. Then, once they do, they do try to keep it a secret. Crombie writes their relationship well, too, as it doesn't seem contrived. It develops quite naturally.

  6. I have two detective partners. One's the veteran and on'es the new guy. They work well together, combining the old ways with the new ways of tracking down clues and the bad guys. They play off well each other. They're the ying to the other's yang, or something like that.

    Stephen Tremp

  7. Stephen - I like the way you put that - ying and yang. When two detectives complement each other like that, the result is often a strong bond. Each knows that s/he needs the other. Your team sounds interesting.

  8. It is not quite the same, but it is interesting to see that because Hannah Scarlett was so fond of her police partner Ben Kind, she seems to transfer some of her feelings and her loyalty to his son Daniel.

  9. Dorte, I am looking forward to reading The Serpent's Pool after reading The Arsenic Labyrinth. Hannah and Daniel's partners were so unsuitable for them.
    I missed Dell Shannon's Luis Mendoza series, which is surprising as I usually slightly prefer the teamwork approach [Sjowall & Wahloo, or Andrea Camilleri] police procedurals to the twosomes or lone rangers.

  10. Dorte - You know, you have a very good point. In fact, I'd thought about her when I was preparing this post, but because Martin Edwards' novels don't really have Ben and Hannah working together, I thought it didn't exactly fit. Still, you really do have a compelling point there.

  11. I love Morse and Lewis, they're such a wonderful example of opposites attracting. I think they both realize they're at their most effective when working together, and no friction would be dull.

    I think every sleuth (whether amateur or professional) needs someone to bounce ideas off of or that second set of eyes and ears. Or, like Poirot, someone to preen before! I always got the feeling that when Hastings wasn't there, Poirot was missing his company.

  12. Norman - I want to read The Serpent Pool very much, too : ). I'm almost to it on my TBR list.

    And it is interesting, isn't it, the difference between team approaches, as you point out, and twosomes/"lone wolves." I like the teamwork approach, too, as I think it's much more realistic. I think you'd like the Mendoza series, especially if you see it today as almost historical fiction. Things in criminal investigation have changed considerably since the novels were written.

  13. Elspeth - LOL! I think you're right about Poirot. In fact, he even admits as much in a few novels. And I agree with you that sleuths are not at their best when they try to figure it all out alone. If you think about it, though, that makes sense. After all, we all learn through our interactions with others, and it's logical that sleuths would, too. In fact, Lev Vygotsky, a famous psychologist, once theorized that all knowledge is socially constructed. If he was right, there's even a stronger argument for sleuths to have a "sounding board."

  14. "Hannah and Daniel's partners were so unsuitable for them."

    It is so funny, Norman, because this is exactly what my daughter says. She read The Serpent Pool last week so she is looking forward to the fifth in the series!

  15. I think the "partnership" element in detective fiction is so appealing, to readers and authors alike, because they can be as faceted as any and all interpersonal relationships; especially when the partners are different genders. Partners can be friends or enemies; boss and underling or equally ranked; teacher or student; racially and culturally homogenous or diverse; old-timers or newbies or a combination; etc, etc.

    P.D. James usually gives Adam Dalgliesh multiple partners. They all treat the Chief Superintendent with the due respect and admiration his rank evokes; but, the interpersonal relations among these partners is quite varied.

    Michael Connelly nicely alters Harry Bosch's interplay with his partners. He responds and behaves differently to his PD partner, Kiz Rider; his FBI partner Rachel Walling; and to Mickey Haller, the Lincoln Lawyer.

    Ed McBain uses the partnerships within the 87th Precinct as major sub-plots to the detective story itself--the stories within the story, if you will.

    I'm sure there are many other "partner" relationships and stories that I've forgotten or haven't read; yet, I generally find these stories preferrable to the "lone wolf" ones. And as always, Margot, thanks for a beautifully thought-provoking post. Please never stop writing them!

  16. Bob - You are far too kind : ). I'm really glad that you brought up Harry Bosch. He certainly does have several partners, and I've enjoyed seeing how each one of them works with him. I liked his pairing with Halley, too; a nice stroke from Connelly. You make a well-taken point about Dalgliesh, as well. In fact, I'd say that one of the keys to a successful long-running series like that one or Connelly's Harry Bosch series is a variety of relationships with different kinds of people. That's how real life is, anyway.

    Speaking of that.... I understand what you mean about liking "partnership" novels. In most cases (I'm not in the police force, so I can't say from experience) police don't investigate major cases like murder by themselves. They work with others, whether it's one other person or a team. So it maakes a lot of sense that that would happen in crime fiction, too.