I’m Totally Formidable When I’m With You*

Detective DuosOne of the really interesting crime fiction sleuth traditions is the husband-and-wife detective team. There are many, many such teams in the genre; in fact you could argue that it’s a deeply ingrained crime novel context. Space is only going to allow me to mention a few of them, but I’m sure you could think of many more than I could anyway.

One of the better-known husband-and-wife teams is Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Prudence ‘Tuppence’ Beresford. When we first meet them in The Secret Adversary, World War I has recently ended and the very young Beresfords find themselves with little money and no real career plans. So they decide to form Young Adventurers, Ltd. and hire themselves out, with ‘no unreasonable offer refused.’ To their surprise, they are indeed hired and soon find themselves involved in a web of international intrigue, missing secret papers, and murder. Unlike some of Christie’s other work, this series follows the Beresfords more or less chronologically and in real time. Throughout the series, we see that these two really do function as a team. They bring different strengths to their cases and they depend on each other.

That’s also true of Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn and his wife, artist Agatha Troy. It’s true that Troy isn’t a professional detective. But she is a keen and intelligent observer, and of course, she’s well-connected within the fine arts community. In several novels (e.g. A Clutch of Constables, Spinsters in Jeopardy and Tied up in Tinsel) the two combine forces to solve cases. Troy relies on her husband’s detective skills and his official status. But she’s no ‘clinging vine.’ Alleyn depends on his wife’s social skills, her observation and intelligence, and her creativity.

There are some similarities between Marsh’s Alleyn/Troy team and Patricia Moyes’ Henry Tibbett and his wife Emmy. Like Alleyn, Tibbett works with Scotland Yard, and like Troy, Emmy is not a professional sleuth. Beginning with Dead Men Don’t Ski, the two work together on Tibbett’s cases. In that novel, they’re taking a ski holiday to Santa Chiara, in the Italian Alps. For Tibbett it’s a working holiday, as he’s doing a bit of secret investigating. The couple soon gets mixed up in a case of murder and smuggling, and it’s obvious even in this first story that they work well together. Emmy has a great deal of insight and her husband depends on what she learns just from simple conversations with others. They map out their strategies almost as though they were police partners.

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series is another powerful example of a husband-and-wife detecting team. Wimsey and mystery novelist Harret Vane meet for the first time in Strong Poison, in which Wimsey helps to clear Vane of murder charges. He falls in love with her and at the end of Gaudy Night, finally persuades her to marry him. The two aren’t married until the last novel, Busman’s Honeymoon, but they are a couple throughout several novels and it’s obvious that they work very well as a team. Wimsey appreciates Vane’s intelligence and her deductive abilities (she is a crime writer after all. 😉 ). And Vane appreciates Wimsey’s experience at detection and his way of solving cases.

There’s also of course Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles. Hammett only wrote one novel The Thin Man that features this couple. But there’ve been several Nick and Nora films. In the novel, Nick Charles is hired to find out what happened to wealthy businessman Clyde Wynant, who seems to have disappeared. Nick isn’t really interested in taking on this case, but he’s drawn into it anyway when the next morning, Wynant’s former secretary Julia Wolf is murdered. Nora Charles certainly plays much more than a supporting role in the novel. But the real teamwork in this couple is more evident in the ‘Thin Man’ films, where they form a strong ‘detective duo.’

Some husband-and-wife sleuthing teams are also police partners for at least some of the series. That’s the case with Deborah Crombie’s Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. When the series begins, in A Share in Death, Met Superintendent Duncan Kincaid works with then-Sergeant Gemma James to solve the murder of Sebastian Wade, whose body is found floating in a whirlpool at the holiday retreat of Followdale House. As the series evolves, the two become friends and then lovers. Later they marry. Both are cops and although James moves on to her own police career, they continue to work together and pool their knowledge. In this series too, we see the way that detective couples’ home lives and work lives interact.

There are of course also lots of cases (I’m thinking for instance of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series) in which couples may not be exactly detective teams, but still rely a great deal on each other. The husband-and-wife detecting team scenario allows the author to explore not just crimes and their investigations, but also relationships and other kinds of story arcs. There’s also lots of opportunity for character development. Little wonder this is such a popular premise.

Thanks very much to Moira at Clothes in Books for the inspiration for this post. Now that you’ve been kind enough to read it, be kind to yourself and check out Moira’s excellent blog. It’s a fantastic resource for information about clothes, popular culture and what it all says about us in fiction.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from UB40’s Nothing Without You.


Filed under Dashiell Hammett, Deborah Crombie, Dorothy Sayers, Louise Penny, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Moyes

28 responses to “I’m Totally Formidable When I’m With You*

  1. As you say, Margot, there are an awful lot of husband-and-wife teams. There were a lot of American teams in particular, mostly from authors writing around the middle third of the 20th century. In addition to Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles, whom you mentioned, there were the Lockridges’ Pam and Jerry North series, Frances Crane’s Pat and Jean Abbott, Kelley Roos’s Haila and Jeff Troy, and Margaret Scherf’s Henry and Emily Bryce. There were also Craig Rice’s Jake and Helene Justus (well the DID wind up married eventually) and – though they never married – Stuart Palmer’s wonderful Hildy Withers and Inspector OscarPiper. Most were fairly light-hearted and all were great fun to read – and, in most cases, hard to find today!

    • Les – I’m so glad you mentioned these couples. Perhaps they’re not quite as well known in the wider crime fiction world, but they’re great examples of the way spouses team up and can add to the richness of a series. Interesting too that most of those series are lighter rather than, say, noir. Perhaps it’s in part because when you have a solid marriage at the base of a ‘detecting duo,’ you already have more function and less dysfunction than you often see in noir and other bleak series.

  2. I love the couples you mention – although I have to admit I don’t know most of the couples Les has listed. Maybe they are too hard to find nowadays.
    Funnily enough, I can’t seem to think of any examples of detecting couples in non-English language crime fiction – perhaps Donna Leon’s Brunetti and his wife Paola – although she sometimes detracts rather than adds to the investigation, bless her!

    • Marina Sofia – Some of those couples really are harder to find than they were, and quite honestly I think that’s a shame. Of the ones I know, they’re good stories. I’m glad you mentioned the Brunettis. Paola sometimes does detract from a case, ‘though always from the best intentions. But I love the way she actively thinks about the cases and what they mean. She really serves as her husband’s conscience if I can put it that way.

  3. How about the couples that appear in Elizabeth George’s series? Lynley’s lost love Deborah married to another of his pals – the two of them are often brought into the mysteries and certainly the dynamics of relationships play out a great deal in this fabulous series. Nothing but nothing beats the flat out fun of Nick and Nora though! And, cheating I know, but how about that television series McMillan and Wife? That was a load of fun.

    • Jan – Oh, now you’re bringing back memories! Yes, indeed, McMillan and Wife really was a fun show. You know, someday I’m going to have to do a post on televised series like that one – good memories there. And you’re right about the couples in the Lynley series. I hadn’t thought of them when I was putting this post together, but they certainly count. Thanks for reminding me of them. I like it that those characters have a history together, so that as you follow the series, you see how they evolve.

  4. kathy d.

    I love Paola Falier and her role in Guido Brunetti’s cases. He discusses many of them with her and she gives her opinions. She is also the person to whom he vents, along with his colleague, Vianello, his frustrations with his boss and other characters with whom he works. She plays a major role here although not always in the scenes.
    I’d echo the point about Mr. and Mrs. North, a series I remember from very early in my childhood, by the Lockridges. I remember the TV series, was too young to be reading the books. Hart to Hart, the TV show, was also modeled after this detecting couple.
    Then there is Inspector Titus Lambert who is in Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders. His spouse, Maude, is also a sounding board but she is interested in the case and provides some good insights.

    • Kathy – Paola Falier is definitely a strong character, and she does serve as her husband’s ‘sounding board’ and conscience. You can really see how he depends on her. And even though she’s not perfect, she has a lot of positive qualities. And she cooks. 😉
      I’m glad you mentioned the Norths. Certainly they count as a crime-solving duo; hadn’t thought about them in a very, very long time. Also thanks for mentioning the Lamberts. I really hope we’ll see more of Titus and Maudie Lambert; they’re a solid couple and I like the insights she offers. I also like it that her husband knows she’s a good resource and depends on her.

  5. Of the couples you mentioned, Patricia Moyes’ Henry Tibbett and Emmy are my favorites. I have read all the books, but it has been a while. I will have to reread some of those. I liked that those were set in many different locales also. I read a lot of the Mr and Mrs North series years ago. It would be interesting to reread some of those too.

    • Tracy – I really like Henry and Emmy Tibbett very much too. They are a great couple and they work well together as a team. And you’re right; the fact that the stories take place in different settings adds to the interest in the series.

  6. I’ve just been reading the first in Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple series, and I’m assuming that Daisy and the lovely Scotland Yard ‘tec Alec are destined to become a husband and wife team in later books. Tommy & Tuppence are my favourites, of course (I have to say that or the cats will be most annoyed) but I love the Nick and Nora films too.

    • FictionFan – Thanks for mentioning the Daisy Dalrymple series. It’s a solid mystery series and Daisy and Alex make a good crime-solving couple. Glad you reminded me of that. And of course you had no choice but to say that you like the Beresfords best. I wouldn’t want to risk your cats’ wrath… Don’t tell them, please, but I like Nick and Nora too.

  7. Margot: Two of my favourite series of this genre are:

    1.) The Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus mysteries by Faye Kellerman; and,

    2.) The William Monk and Hester Latterly books by Anne Perry though they do take a long time to get married.

    I have drifted away from both series. I did enjoy the early books in each of them. Both series had a strong social justice component.

    • Bill – I agree about the Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus series. That couple works very well together as a team. I’m not quite as familiar with the Monk/Latterly series, although I like what I’ve read of it. As you say, both series address social issues, but they also offer good, solid mysteries.

  8. Great post Margot, and I’m very glad to think I inspired it. I suppose Albert Campion and Amanda, from the Margery Allingham books, could qualify, though they don’t really work as a team so much once they are married. Nigel Strangeways in the Nicholas Blake murder stories marries the explorer Georgia, which was promising, but then she is rather casually got rid of…

    • Moira – Thanks – I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and I appreciate the inspiration. You’re right that Albert Campion and Amanda aren’t really what you would call a detecting team after they marry. But I do like them as a couple. And I liked the idea of Nigel Strangeways and Georgia. I wish she had stayed in the series longer.

  9. I love the ones you mentioned. I especially enjoy ones where they each bring different talents to the mix. It was easier to pull off when most women did not have careers of their own and could prowl around, eavesdrop, or set their easel up in a good spot for watching.

    • Patti – You’ve got a good point. When fewer women were working outside the home it was easier for them to do the sort of eavesdropping, watching and so on that are sometimes needed to solve cases. It’s harder now, so I appreciate it when an author can pull that off. And you’re right; when each member of the couple brings in different skills and talents, you see that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. And that adds to the detective duo’s ‘bag of tricks.’

  10. Margot, as I started reading, Deborah Crombie’s Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James quickly came to mind. The husband and wife team does make for interesting challenges I’m sure for the writer, but intriguing stories for us readers. I like the fact as a reader we get to know how the officer or officers handle home life too. It adds to the realism of the story.

    Thoughts in Progress

    • Mason – I think so too. That’s part of why I like the husband/wife detective team premise. I also think that it can make for better-rounded characters, since we see how the couple interacts. I agree, too, that Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James are a solid ‘detective duo.’

  11. The ones that spring to mind for me are Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta and Benton and Karin Slaughters Sara Linton who was the town pathologist as Scarpetta is and her actually ex-husband but back together again, cop Jeffery Tolliver. Both strong woman but neither the law enforcement of the book.

    • Rebecca – Thanks for filling in that gap. Those are both solid examples of spouses/partners who work together at the same time as they share their personal lives.

  12. Moira beat me to it with Nicholas Blake’s Nigel Strangeways and Georgia. Later Nigel married (or maybe just lived with) the sculptor, Clare Massinger, who was also got involved with his cases. Both were very modern relationships of equals.

    • Chrissie – I like the way you put that: ‘…relationships of equals.’ I think that’s essential for a good husband/wife detective team premise. When each person brings different skills to a case, and each respects the other, it can make for a solid level of richness in the characters and in the actual detection. And the Strangeways stories are good examples of that.

  13. kathy d.

    Just one more point on Paola Falier, the spouse of Guido Brunetti. She provides a lot of the spice of the Donna Leon books, and her comments make them more interesting. The books would be less interesting without her.

  14. I love Tommy and Tuppence!!! And I didn’t realize there was only one Nick and Nora novel. I remember watching those old movies in black and white on late night TV when I was in high school. (And my dad yellling, “Turn that thing down!) 😀

    • Pat – LOL! Yes, those Nick & Nora films were great, weren’t they? I always liked the rapport between. And I agree; Tommy and Tuppence are great characters. I often wish Christie had written more novels featuring them.

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