A lot of crime novels feature one sleuth. Of course, if that one sleuth is at all believable, she or he gets information and sometimes help from other people, but really, there’s one main protagonist. Some authors though have chosen to develop two protagonists. I’m not talking here of pairings such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Rather, I’m talking of dual protagonists whose stories develop almost independently even though the characters are working on the same case or set of cases. It’s not easy to create that kind of partnership without confusing the reader or belabouring the story. But when it’s done well, a plot or series that involves two protagonists with separate but related stories can add a layer of depth and interest and can make for some interesting story arcs too.
Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series is like that. There are several instances in the series where the two pursue different lines of investigation. In Recalled to Life for instance, Cissy Kohler has recently been released from prison after serving time for involvement in the 1963 murder of Pamela Westrop. At the time of her arrest, Ralph Mickledore was also arrested, tried and imprisoned for the murder. Now there are suggestions that Cissy Kohler was innocent and that Dalziel’s old mentor Wally Tallentire, who pursued the case, knew about it and hid that knowledge. Deputy Chief Constable Geoff Hiller is leading an investigation into those allegations, much to Dalziel’s anger. Dalziel doesn’t believe that Tallentire did anything wrong and he resents the questions about his mentor’s character. So he takes another look at the case, mostly to prove that his mentor was ‘clean.’ His new investigation takes him to the US to follow up with an important witness. Meanwhile, Pascoe stays behind and serves as a liaison between Hiller’s team and the CID. In that way, the two sleuths work more or less on the same case, but they do so separately, and we get their two different perspectives.
Martin Edwards’ Lake District series also features two separate protagonists. One is DCI Hannah Scarlett, who heads the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. The other is Oxford historian Daniel Kind. Although their two stories are related to the same cases, they often investigate different angles of the case in different ways. For instance, in The Serpent Pool, Scarlett and her team are re-investigating the six-year-old drowning death of Bethany Friend. They find that it’s connected to two more recent murders, so Scarlett’s angle on this case is the police business of finding out who the murderer is and how the three murders are connected. Meanwhile Kind is doing research into the life and work of Thomas De Quincy. He’s interested in De Quincey and has been invited to give a presentation at a festival to be held in honour of De Quincey. Although Kind doesn’t investigate the murders, not even unofficially, his research proves to be crucial to solving the case.
Margaret Coel’s Vicky Holden and Father John O’Malley are also dual protagonists in the same series. They both work on the Arapaho people’s Wind River Reservation; Holden is a lawyer and a member of the Arapaho Nation. O’Malley is a Jesuit priest attached to the local St. Francis Mission. They know each other of course, and develop a deep friendship, but they don’t really work cases together in the way that, say, cop partners do. In The Eagle Catcher for instance, Arapaho tribal chair Harvey Castle is murdered at a powwow. His nephew Anthony is arrested for the crime, and with good reason. But O’Malley doesn’t think that he’s guilty. His angle on this case is to look into the history of the Arapaho people – a history that he knew Castle was compiling and that could provide a key to the murder. For Holden’s part, she agrees to defend Anthony Castle and starts putting together his case. She and O’Malley share information, but they have different perspectives and the story is told from their two different perspectives.
The same thing is true of Martha Grimes’ Richard Jurly/Melrose Plant series. They compare notes and are friends, but they often work separately. For instance, in The Anodyne Necklace, Inspector Jury is called to the village of Littlebourne when a human finger and later a body are discovered. Both turn out to belong to Cora Binns, a temporary secretary who’d come to Littlebourne for an interview. Jury puts the machinery of the law into motion and begins to interview the villagers as well as Cora’s family and neighbours. At the same time Melrose Plant goes to Littlebourne in the guise of wanting to buy some property there. He talks to several of the locals and learns that there was a robbery in the village about a year before Cora was killed. He and Jury also learn that another resident Katie O’Brien was attacked in a London underground station and is now in a coma. Although each man works on his own angle, Jury and Plant share what they learn and little by little, they find out that the murder of Cora Binns is related to the robbery and to the attack on Katie O’Brien.
And then there’s Elly Griffiths’ series featuring North Norfolk University archaeologist Ruth Galloway and DCI Harry Nelson. On the one hand, they share information; they’ve even had a romantic relationship. But they often go their separate ways when they’re investigating. For example, in The Janus Stone, Galloway is called in when a headless child’s skeleton is discovered beneath the ruins of the Sacred Heart Children’s Home when a new posh apartment building is put up on the same site. Galloway’s expertise is needed to determine how old the bones are. When it turns out that they are not ancient, the police begin to investigate. Nelson discovers that two children disappeared from the children’s home at about the time that the bones would have been buried. To find out the truth about the missing children and whether that case is related to the remains that have been found, Nelson interviews retired priest Father Hennessey, who was in charge of the children’s home at the time of the disappearances. Meanwhile Galloway is on a team that’s excavating Roman ruins in the area. Her team’s finds turn out to have an important connection to the case that Nelson’s investigating. They work together in that sense, but each of them pursues leads separately and the story is told from both of their perspectives.
Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs also includes two protagonists who work separately even though they co-operate and share information. In that novel, Chief Inspector William Wisting and his team investigate the bizarre appearance of a group of feet that wash up near the Norwegian town of Stavern. The rest of the bodies can’t be found though, so there’s a lot of speculation about what has happened. There’s even talk that a particularly crazed serial killer may be responsible. Wisting and his team begin their search for answers with a look at missing person cases. They find that several of the people reported missing have either lived in or worked at the same old-age care home. That home and the long-time association among some of the residents prove to be important clues. In the meantime, Wisting’s daughter Line is also in Stavern. She’s a journalist working on a story about former prison inmates who’ve now been released. The point she wants to make is that prison does more harm than good. As she meets with her interviewees, she too finds out important information that turns out to be related to the case her father is working. The two stories are told separately and from both perspectives. And yet, they relate to the same case.
Other authors such as Deborah Crombie have done a similar thing. Katherine Howell’s got a particularly interesting approach to the dual-protagonist motif. Her series features Detective Ella Marconi of the New South Wales police. But her novels also feature other protagonists, usually paramedics and each novel focuses on a different one. It’s an innovative way to integrate other protagonists into a series.
What do you think? Do you find that having two separate protagonists with two different points of view confusing? Does it add to your enjoyment of a novel? If you’re a writer, have you experimented with two protagonists?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Tears’ Co-Star.