It Takes Two To Make a Thing Go Right: Ten Great Detective Duos
“No matter how a man alone ain’t got no bloody f**king chance.”
— Ernest Hemingway
So let’s talk a moment about detective teams, detective duos, detective buddies. However you want to call them. They’re interesting to me and I like them and this is my essay so that’s what we’re going to do, dang it. Besides, my novels involve a father-daughter detective team—Slim and Anci, delighted I’m sure—and I’m hoping you, my dear reader, will in the fullness of time help me finance that new outbuilding I’ve had my eye on.
First, though, some writer chat: Detective teams perform a couple of useful functions in mystery stories. One, the presence of a partner, spouse, sidekick, or foil tends to give the main protagonist someone to talk to besides herself. This is helpful if you want to prevent said protagonist from coming off as bug-nuts and fit to be tied. Think of them as Flounder to the story’s Little Mermaid (I’m a grown adult man). Two, a partner can serve as a way to humanize the main detective, especially when she or he is saddled with the kinds of emotional or mental issues writers love to saddle their characters with these days. Seriously, y’all, some of these poor bastards could probably barely push a shopping cart ten feet in a straight line, much less solve a murder. Anyway, a partner can help with that, smoothing down some of the rough patches.
More than that, though, the detective duo is fun to write. They’re fun to bounce off one another and see what happens, like two shards of flint and a bucket of gasoline. They’re just fun. Here’re ten that I’m especially fond of, in no particular order except this is how I’m typing them down.
- Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed: Ace detective stars of Chester Himes’s Harlem stories, they’re at once mean as hell and as sympathetic as the best fictional detectives always are. They love food (which they usually get for free), music (often jazz), and big guns. They’ve also got two of the best nicknames in all mystery fiction.
- Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey: Okay, okay, I hear you: Mean as hell and big guns aren’t your thing. I got you covered. How about Dorothy Sayers’s classy snoops? We’re introduced to Vane when she’s accused of poisoning her husband (he deserved it, the rat). Peter solves murders involving bells. But together they’re all smooth sophistication and style. Which, by the way, leads us to…
- Nick and Nora Charles: Like Vane and Wimsey but with more booze—a lot more booze—and the sharp edges we’d expect from the American cousins of landed dilettantes. But, damn, they’re funny. And Hammett’s sentences (“We didn’t come to New York to stay sober.”) slide along like marbles on very expensive glass.
- Inspector Rutledge and Hamish: One’s a Scotland Yard detective with PTSD; the other’s the ghost (well, maybe) of the compatriot he ordered shot for disobedience. Can they get along? No, no, they can’t. But they do solve murders together in Caroline and Charles Todd’s affecting and often very spooky post-World War I mysteries.
- Hap Collins and Leonard Pine: Hilarious, profane, violent, white and straight and black and gay, doomed to maybe the worst luck in recorded history. Joe Lansdale’s famous crime-fighting duo are the avenging angels of east Texas. Long may they kick ass.
- C.W. Sughrue and Milo Milodragovitch: Former P.I. partners, occasional mutual antagonists, and hard drinkers who make Nick and Nora Charles look like the leaders of your local temperance league. Sughrue’s mad, Milo’s sad, but, damn, are James Crumley’s Montana/Texas crime novels fun reading! Oddly enough, we only get Milo and C.W. together in one novel, Bordersnakes, but what a ride it is.
- William of Baskerville and Adso of Melk: A beautiful and awesome mystery and a wondrous work of art to boot. Two monks—one teacher, one student—set out to unravel the mystery of an abbey secluded in the mountains of Italy. Umberto Eco’s classic The Name of the Rose might just be my favorite mystery novel of all time. I also wish I could wear a robe all day, so there’s that.
- Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn: Tony Hillerman’s tribal policemen are based around a simple inversion: The young Chee is the conservative spiritual presence while his elder is the jaded cynic who could quite frankly give a damn. They’re an amazing pair, though, and they feature in one of crime fiction’s most engrossing and convincing landscapes.
- Barker and Llewelyn: At once a tribute to Arthur Doyle and something entirely its own, Will Thomas’s series gives us the mysterious and fascinating Cyrus Barker (imagine Sherlock Holmes but larger, more dangerous, with a pocket full of sharpened pennies. I know, right?) and his young assistant Thomas Llewelyn, a former scholar-turned-convict-turned-private-eye. At first, you’ll feel like you’ve been here before, but after just a few pages, you’ll want to follow this pair into the darkest sewer Victorian London can throw at you.
- St-Cyr and Kohler: Talk about an odd couple! Jean-Louis St-Cyr is a French policeman. Hermann Kohler is the SS officer assigned as his overseer. It’s World War II and France is occupied. Things don’t get a lot cheerier from there. But they do get interesting, and bloody. If you haven’t discovered J. Robert Janes’s brilliant series, treat yourself, starting with 1992’s Mayhem.
Oh, and before I go…
Bonus #11: Slim and Anci: He’s a redneck detective and former coal miner. She’s the brilliant daughter he’s raising on his own. Together they solve blue-collar mysteries and crack jokes. You’ll love them.
Now, help me get that outbuilding, dammit.
Jason Miller is half of the Miller Brothers writing team, creators of the critically acclaimed graphic novel Redball 6. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.