“Unofficial Partnerships”

No detective knows everything and can fit in everywhere. Not in real life and not in crime fiction. It would be very unrealistic if a detective could do everything for him or herself. So sometimes, when sleuths are on a case, they work with unofficial partners. I don’t mean partnerships such as Colin Dexter’s Morse and Lewis or Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe, or even “amateur partnerships” such as Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. Some partnerships are much more informal than that, but nonetheless valuable to the sleuth. Those kinds of partnerships can also be interesting to the reader, as they let the reader get to know different characters. Those sorts of partnerships also make a book or series much more realistic.

For instance, there’s an extremely unusual and interesting partnership in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Hercule Poirot has decided to retire to the village of King’s Abbott to grow vegetable marrows – or so he thinks. Shortly after Poirot’s arrival in the village, retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd is stabbed to death in his study. There are several suspects, since Ackroyd had a large fortune. But the most likely one is his stepson Captain Ralph Paton. Paton was in serious financial difficulties and had even quarreled with his stepfather about money. What’s worse, he’s discovered to have been at Ackroyd’s home on the night of the murder, and has since disappeared. Paton’s fiancée Flora Ackroyd doesn’t believe he’s guilty, and asks Poirot to investigate. Poirot knows that as a newcomer and a foreigner, he may not easily be trusted and he doesn’t really know the people involved in the case. But he finds an unofficial partner who can help. Dr. James Sheppard, who lives next door to Poirot, is a villager who’s known the Ackroyd family for a long time, and who was, in fact, a friend of Roger Ackroyd’s. Poirot works with Sheppard to find out who killed Ackroyd.

Officially, Ellery Queen works with his father Inspector Richard Queen. But not always. In The Four of Hearts, Queen’s working at a Magna Studios in Hollywood on what’s turned out to be a very unproductive six-week contract. He’s about to leave Hollywood when he’s persuaded to help work on a new bio-picture. This film is to focus on the lives of Hollywood legends Blythe Stuart and John Royle. This couple had had a stormy romance which ended in a bitter and very public parting of ways. Each married someone else and each now has an adult child. Their feud has continued through the years, so everyone’s shocked when they consent to do the film. What’s even more surprising for everyone is that the two fall in love again and make plans to marry. The brass at Magna Studios use this to their advantage and plan a gala wedding full of Hollywood hype. Stuart and Royle are married on an airstrip and they and their children then board the plane and head off for their honeymoon. Tragically they never make it. By the time the plane lands, both are dead of poison, and their children blame each other. Queen gets involved in the investigation and discovers that neither of the young people is the murderer. As he looks into the lives of the victims, he partners unofficially with Hollywood gossip columnist Paula Paris. Paris knows everyone in Hollywood, and knows everything – however minor – that’s going on. What’s unusual about her is that she never leaves her home due to agoraphobia; everyone always comes to her because of “the power of the press.”  Queen and Paris work together to find out who would have wanted to kill Stuart and Royle and why.

Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti works officially with Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello. But more than once he works unofficially with his wife Paola Falier, who is not only a countess by birth, but also a professor. So she has literary, academic and social connections that her husband doesn’t have, and sometimes Brunetti makes use of them and works with her unofficially. For instance, in Blood From a Stone, Brunetti and Vianello are investigating the execution-style murder of an unidentified Senegalese man who was killed while he was working at an open-air market. There’s not much to go on in terms of who the man was or why he was killed but eventually, Brunetti and Vianello find out where he lived. They also find a cache of jewels that turn out to be “conflict diamonds” – diamonds that originate in an area where factions oppose the legitimate government and that are used to support armed uprisings against the government. But they still don’t know where the man was from or anything about him. Brunetti works unofficially with his wife, who uses her academic connections to find an expert in African cultures. She helps Brunetti track down the source of the diamonds and trace them to an arms-smuggling ring.

Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover is a retired teacher who lives in the small town of Bradley, North Carolina. In Pretty Is As Pretty Dies, she decides to investigate the death of Parke Stockard, a beautiful but malicious and dangerous real-estate developer. When Stockard’s body is found in a local church, Myrtle Clover’s son, Chief of Police Red Clover, is determined that his mother stay out of the case and stay safe. She’s got other plans, though, and decides to show that she’s not ready yet to be “put out to pasture.” So she begins to look into the case. There are plenty of suspects, too; Parke Stockard was vindictive, mean, selfish and greedy and had alienated just about everyone in town. Myrtle Clover soon finds out, though, that sleuthing isn’t always safe. One night, she has a narrow escape with help from her new neighbour Miles Bradford. Bradford hadn’t planned on it, but his neighbour’s determination is too much for him and he’s soon drawn into working unofficially with her. After another death (and a calamitous dinner!) the two find out who killed Parke Stockard and why.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe works officially with her assistant (later associate) Grace Makutsi. But she sometimes partners unofficially with her fiancé (later husband) Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. He owns Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors and knows just about all there is to know about cars. He also is very familiar with the area and the people who live there, as he’s lived there himself all his life. So his knowledge is sometimes very useful. In The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, for instance, Mma. Ramotswe gets a heartbreaking letter from Ernest Pakotati, a schoolteacher whose eleven-year-old son has gone missing. Mma. Ramotswe is determined to find the boy, and sets to work. It soon becomes clear that the boy’s disappearance may be connected to a witchcraft group, but Mma. Ramotswe doesn’t know how she’ll track down the witch doctor as such things are simply not discussed. But then, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni helps her think of a way. He’s called out when a car belonging to a local powerful figure named Charlie Gotso is pulled out of a ditch. As he’s working on the car, Matekoni finds a frightening piece of evidence that Gotso may be involved with witchcraft practitioners. So he works unofficially with Mma. Ramotswe to induce Gotso to let Mma. Ramotswe know who the local witchcraft practitioners are so she can trace the missing boy.

American ex-pat Torrey Tunet is Dicey Deere’s sleuth in her four-novel (so quite manageable 😉 ) series. Tunet is a translator who’s fluent in a wide variety of different languages. The Irish village of Ballynagh serves as her home base when she’s not away on business, and as the series develops, she’s accepted as “one of us” by the villagers. In this series, Tunet usually investigates on her own, much to the chagrin of Inspector O’Hare, whose patch Ballynagh is. But sometimes, she works unofficially with her lover Jasper Shaw. Shaw is a journalist who travels all over the world as he works on his stories. He’s got all sorts of contacts and resources that Tunet finds helpful. He’s also a gourmand and an expert cook – skills that Tunet also finds helpful.

“Unofficial partnerships” can be very helpful to the sleuth. They’re realistic, too, since sleuths can’t know everything. They can also add to the interest of a story, and provide readers with solid characters to “meet.” Which “unofficial partners” are your favourites? If you’re a writer, do you include these characters?


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Dicey Deere, Donna Leon, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ellery Queen

8 responses to ““Unofficial Partnerships”

  1. Margot my favourite “unofficial partnership” is Salvo Montalbano and Ingrid, the blonde Swede in Andrea Camilleri’s books. Ingrid is very helpful with her connections with the rich and powerful of the area, and her fast driving. I wonder if they will finally end the ‘will they won’t they’ platonic relationship and get together.

    • Norman – Oh, that is a terrific partnership. Thanks for reminding me of it. Ingrid is such an interesting character, too, isn’t she? As you say, she’s well-connected, independent, and very helpful to Montalbano. I’m wondering, too, what will happen to them, especially given the whole Livia situation (I know, I’m beginning to sounds like a soap opera addict!). Well, we shall have to see.

  2. It seems the unofficial partner is often the password for the sleuth into a new society or situation. Strangers aren’t often going to confide in strangers (unless there’s alcohol involved) and the unofficial partner can certainly ease the sleuth’s way as he/she steps through the doorway. Another great post, Margot! I’m in utter awe.

    • Elspeth – Oh, now that’s so nice of you, Elspeth – thank you :-)! And yes, that’s a very good and important purpose that an unofficial partner can serve. Sleuths are certainly not welcome in every group and they don’t know everyone. It’s nice to have an unofficial partner at times like that.

  3. kathy d.

    Yes, good examples of unofficial partnerships.
    With Guido Brunetti, there is also Signorina Elettra, an enigmatic computer genius. He is not supposed to ask her for information, especially not of the type she gets through hacking and friends who are super-hackers. They would both be in trouble if this came out.

    • Kathy – Thank you :-). You’re quite right, too, about Elettra Zorzi. She has connections everywhere, doesn’t she? And she has technological skills that Brunetti doesn’t, so she’s about to get a lot of information he can’t get. It is interesting to think about what would happen if they got caught. It would most likely not be pretty, that’s for sure.

  4. kathy d.

    In the newest book by Donna Leon, Drawing Conclusions, Brunetti starts thinking more about what Elettra Zorzi is doing and that it is not exactly legal, and also that she spends a long time buying flowers during work time and spends office funds. He asks her about a few things, but then drops it.

    • Kathy – Interesting point you make here. It raises the question of whether and to what extent the end justifies the means. She does things that aren’t legal and certainly aren’t condoned by office policy. And yet, she helps him with cases and frequently it’s those not-exactly-legal things she does that give him vital clues.

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