05/18/2024

Some Crim

Track the Untold Stories

The Three Types of Detective Duos You Find in Historical Mysteries

The Three Types of Detective Duos You Find in Historical Mysteries

My cat has nothing in common with Maisie Dobbs.

Let me back up.

Picture the scene: it’s December 2021. My first nephew had just been born, and because of the pandemic, I couldn’t meet him in person or help my sister the way she’d helped me after my sons were born. I was feeling helpless, sad, and vulnerable as Christmas approached. So I did what any logical person would do.

I went on PetFinder.

Hear me out, though—we’d recently adopted a chihuahua, and my intention was to find contact information so that we could make a holiday donation to the organization that had rescued him. Instead, I saw a description of a cat who needed a home. I showed it to my husband, who raised a skeptical eyebrow.

“Izzy wants a sister!” I informed him.

He eyed the black cat we’d had for twelve years as she napped serenely on my favorite chair. “Izzy definitely does not want a sister.”

And, okay, maybe he had a point. After all, with a mere hiss and a swat, Izzy had easily asserted her dominance first over our two beagles (may they rest in peace) and then over the chihuahua.

All three dogs were terrified of her.

Fast forward a week and I had convinced him; instead of a donation in honor of our dog, we made plans to adopt our second cat. Fast forward another week and our new kitty arrived on a transport van from Tennessee. I named her after my favorite fictional detective, Maisie Dobbs.

Her entry into our household caused chaos. While her namesake is courageous, intelligent, and empathetic, Maisie the cat turned out to be none of these things. She’s flighty, nervous, and enjoys clawing my favorite chair—the same one Izzy loves to nap on.

As my husband predicted, Izzy was less than thrilled about the arrival of her new sister. Much hissing and swatting ensued. Unlike the dogs, though, this new cat refused to submit entirely to Izzy’s dominance. Eventually, the prickly queen and the neurotic newcomer learned to co-exist. Now, they’ll curl up next to each other on my lap as I sit in my favorite chair, now decorated with festive stripes thanks to Maisie’s claws.

Many fictional detectives are like Izzy used to be: happy to fly solo. After all, the trope of the lone investigator is appealing. Harry Bosch, one of my all-time favorites, embodies it. Even as I fret about Harry’s unhealthy work-life balance, I still find his all-consuming passion for justice inspiring—and very fun to read about.

However, there’s an alternative to the “man on a mission” in crime fiction: the detective duo. And, boy, can it be fun to go along for the ride as a pair of detectives works together to solve murders.

The first one that comes to my mind is Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. By pairing his ruthlessly intelligent investigator with a kinder, more sensitive partner, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created one of the most famous foils in all of literature—and gave readers a relatable character who could translate Holmes’s lightning-fast deductions for us, filling in the blanks that the brilliant detective would’ve been far too impatient to stop and explain himself.

Duos’ dynamics vary. Sometimes—like my cats—they are thrown together by fate (or, ahem, by me) against their will. Other times, the partnership evolves naturally because the partners’ skills and attitudes complement each other. And sometimes, the only way for two people to overcome a shared trauma is to work together to solve a murder.

In my debut historical mystery DEATH IN THE DETAILS, my main character, Maple, is an amateur sleuth who feels compelled to investigate a mysterious death in her small town. My decision to give her a partner was partly a practical one; she needed inside information, and Kenny—the sheriff’s deputy—could provide it. However, I also enjoyed forcing my prickly and somewhat jaded heroine into partnership with an idealistic young officer. Throughout the story, Maple helps Kenny see beyond his rose-colored glasses and he helps her reclaim some faith in humanity’s potential for good.

So, in honor of Holmes and Watson, Maple and Kenny, and (to a lesser extent) my two cats, here are three types of detective duos found in historical mysteries.

Agreeable Allies  

MAISIE DOBBS by Jacqueline Winspear

(London, 1929)

Maisie Dobbs and Billy Beale encounter each other in the first chapter of the first book in the series, when he arrives to help hang a sign outside the detective agency she just started… but it isn’t the first time they’ve met. Billy recognizes Maisie immediately as the nurse who saved his life in a casualty clearing station in France. Their shared history—they’ve both returned from the war with both physical and emotional wounds—and mutual respect grows into a strong friendship and partnership. Throughout the series, the former nurse and the former soldier become each other’s sounding boards, looking out for each other as they work increasingly dangerous cases and support each other through personal tragedies.

Feisty Frenemies

A CURIOUS BEGINNING by Deanna Raybourn

(England, 1887)

Veronica Speedwell and Mr. Stoker get on each other’s nerves immediately in this lively romp of a story. In Stoker’s defense, he has no idea why his beloved mentor shows up at his door unannounced with Veronica in tow and instructs him to protect her with his life. Veronica is also in the dark, but when the mentor is murdered and they fear Veronica is the next target, these two strangers must go on the run together. Both characters are passionate, strong-willed, and stubborn; as a reader, it’s great fun to watch them provoke each other and bicker enthusiastically as they hunt for a murderer and try to stay alive themselves.

Bonding over Emotional Baggage

A DEADLY ENDEAVOR by Jenny Adams

(Philadelphia, 1921)

On the surface, Edie and Gil have very little in common. She hails from one of Philly’s oldest and richest families, and he’s from the wrong side of the tracks. However, when their mutual connection to murdered girls throws them together, they find themselves hunting a serial killer. Gil’s living with shell shock from his wartime experience and mourning his wife’s death; Edie struggles with depression, the effects of a long illness, and the betrayal of someone close to her. Though their individual traumas are different, they turn out to share the same deepest fear: they don’t want to be cowards. Luckily (?), they have plenty of opportunities in this story to face their own demons—and also some very dangerous criminals.

***

I find murder mysteries oddly comforting. When I open one, I know something bad has happened, but I also know I can trust the detective(s) to put everything right—or, as right as it can be put in the aftermath of brutal death. Veronica Speedwell sums up the detectives’ mission this way: “‘Murder is an act of chaos. It lies with us to bring order and method to the solution of the deed.’”

Sometimes, we readers crave a lone wolf to restore order. But sometimes what we really need is connection.  And sometimes—even if they may not always want to admit it—that’s what our fictional detectives need, too.