You’ll Find it Takes Teamwork Every Time*

TeamworkIt’s very rare that an individual solves a crime, especially a crime as complex as murder, alone. And even in crime fiction from the classic and Golden Age years, there are plenty of examples of sleuths who work with a partner (e.g. Holmes and Watson, Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, and Poirot and Hastings). But since the advent of the more modern police procedural, we’ve seen a growth in crime fiction that follows not just one or two sleuths, but a whole team of them. These novels aren’t just stories of the crimes; they are also the stories of the groups of people who solve them. So they are arguably character studies as well as crime novels.

This kind of series can be a bit challenging to write. On the one hand, the author wants a group of interesting, perhaps even eccentric characters. On the other, it’s important to keep the focus on the mystery at hand. That balance isn’t always easy, but when it does work, the result can be memorable.

Beginning in 1956, Ed McBain published a long series of novels featuring the police of the 87th Precinct. Although Steve Carella, Meyer Meyer and Bert Kling appear most frequently in this series, it’s really about many other people at the precinct, too. The various characters have their eccentricities and foibles, but they work together as a team, and each one brings something to that team. The series is a long one, and there are several story arcs throughout it that involve the personal lives of the various detectives. But that said, the focus in these novels really is the cases at hand.

Shortly after the 87th Precinct series got underway, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö began their ten-novel Martin Beck series. Starting with Roseanna, this series follows Beck and his Stockholm homicide team as they go about their work. The novels do include story arcs that deal with the characters’ personal lives, and we get to know them as people. They have their eccentricities, as we all do, and they certainly don’t always see eye to eye. But they do work as a team, and they know they depend on each other. Fans will know that Sjöwall and Wahlöö used this series as a way to critique Swedish government and society. Even so, the novels keep their focus on the crimes that are the focus of the novels. The plots don’t tend to get lost, if I may put it that way.

The same might be said of Reginald Hill’s series featuring Superintendent Andy Dalziel and his team. Beginning with 1970’s A Clubbable Woman, this series follows Dalziel, his assistant, Peter Pascoe, and the various members of their team. On one level, many of the sub-plots and story arcs follow the characters’ personal lives. We get to know their backgrounds, and we see them as people. They’re in some ways a very disparate group, too, so it’s interesting to see how they interact. They don’t always agree; and sometimes, there’s real tension among them. And yet, they do respect each other, and each one adds to the team’s collective ability. That’s arguably why Dalziel supports them as he does. Part of what has made this series so successful is arguably the way in which the characters develop, and their personal stories. But Hill also didn’t lose sight of the mysteries at hand in these novels. The real focus is the set of cases that the team investigates.

One of the most eccentric groups of detectives is the one supervised by Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. His team includes Danglard, a ‘walking encyclopedia’ who drinks far more white wine than you’d think judicious; Mercadet, who deals with narcolepsy; and Retancourt, a naturalist who interacts more effectively with animals than with people. There’s also (in a few novels) Snowball the office cat. These are very disparate characters, and their personal stories are woven through the series. In several story arcs, we learn about their backgrounds and their home lives. They certainly don’t always agree on things, but they do know that they depend on each other and their boss. And Adamsberg knows he depends on his team. These particular characters may not be conventional, but they get the job done. While the stories in this series do include character development, their focus is the mysteries that the team solves.

More recently, Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano series also shows how a disparate team of people work together to solve crimes. Montalbano may get irritated with one or another (or even a few) members of his team from time to time. And each member has weaknesses and personal foibles. But all of the team members know that they depend on each other. They’re quite a motley crew, as the saying goes. But they each bring something to the team, and everyone knows that, especially Montalbano. There are story arcs and sub-plots that explore the personal lives of some of the team members, and Camilleri fleshes out the characters. But the focus here, as it is in the other series I’ve mentioned, is the plots – the actual cases.

Thus far I’ve discussed police teams, but there are also plenty of examples of this sort of teamwork outside the police station, too. For example, Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series features Chapman, who lives and has her bakery in a distinctive Melbourne building. But the stories are most definitely not just about her. Several other people also live and/or have businesses in the same building, and we get to know them all as the series goes on. They’re all quite different, and each has eccentricities. But they do work together and each contributes to the series. Their personal stories are woven into the series in the form of story arcs and sub-plots, but the main focus is the set of mysteries. Greenwood weaves together character development and plot development as the series goes on.

And that seems to be the key to making such ‘ensemble’ series work. Readers want to know about the characters; story arcs and sub-plots can help in this. But such novels work best when the real focus is on the plot. Which ‘ensemble casts’ do you like best? If you’re a writer, do you use teams?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen’s Teamwork.

36 Comments

Filed under Andrea Camilleri, Ed McBain, Fred Vargas, Kerry Greenwood, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Reginald Hill

36 responses to “You’ll Find it Takes Teamwork Every Time*

  1. I still love Simenon’s Maigret and his team – perhaps the grandaddy of police procedurals. Although Maigret is at the centre, you do get to know the others and how they relate to each other and to Maigret.

    • I’m so glad you reminded me of Maigret and his team, Christine. That’s a great dynamic, and they do work together. As you say, you do get to know them. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  2. I really like the team in Anne Cleeves Vera books – I thought she really made them individual characters, as well as showing how they work together as a team. I love Vera’s relationship with her sidekick, and the way he and his wife try to draw her into their family life…

    • You know, I’m glad you mentioned that team, Moira. I agree with you that Vera Stanhope has a solid team, and Cleeves does an effective job of giving the members of the team fully fleshed-out characters and lives. And yet, these books don’t lose sight of the actual cases.

  3. Reginald Hill’s team is my favourite, as of course you know, but more recently I’ve enjoyed the team that Sharon Bolton has built in the Lacey Flint books, which are often as much about other members of the team as they are about Lacey herself. And as you mention about others, she doesn’t get so bogged down in the team that she forgets to give a good mystery plot too.

    • Ah, yes, FictionFan, that’s a great example of an ‘ensemble’ series. I’m glad that you mentioned that,series and filled in that gap. And a good reminder that I need to spotlight one of these novels.

  4. Kathy D.

    Glad you mentioned the quirky Adamsberg team; they are all individuals with eccentricities, as a police detective who speaks in 12-syllable Alexandrine verse. And Montalbano’s team, wonderful with the detail-oriented Fazio and the rattled Catarella.
    There is also Guido Brunetti’s team set in Venice, including the computer genius Elettra Zorzi.
    Erlendur and his team in Iceland are also fascinating. And there is good teamwork in Irene Huss’ police precinct in Sweden.

    • I like those teams too, Kathy. All of them have their own individual personalities, and they all develop as characters over the series. Yet, the focus is on the cases at hand; that aspect of it doesn’t get lost.

  5. You make some excellent points about what is needed to make these books work – as you know I’m a big Reginald Hill fan and love the wide range of characters – even Pascoe and his wife have strongly differing views on some matters – and yet there is also at the heart of the book a great mystery for the team to work on – at the same time revealing a little more of themselves often by drawing out a specific aspect.

    • That’s exactly it, Cleo. Each book has a mystery that drives the plot, and that’s the main focus of the book. Yet at the same time, we get to know that wide range of characters. And you’re right; the key is doing so bit by bit, rather than bogging down the stories with too much information at once. And I’m glad you mentioned Ellie; I really like her character.

  6. I’ve just realised in reading your examples that these ensemble pieces are one of my favourite kind of crime fiction novels – as opposed to the lone detective who can’t trust anybody.
    I’ve just recently been reading and rereading some Martha Grimes novels – and Richard Jury and Melrose Plant are not working in isolation either, even though the eccentric secondary characters are more often a hindrance rather than a help in solving the mysteries. But it’s sometimes a hard balance to get right, between just describing the team dynamics, and the actual puzzle of the mystery. All the examples you mention above achieve that balance really well.

  7. Col

    I’m looking forward to trying some of McBain’s 87th Precinct series. I have enjoyed some of Leif Persson’s books involving the team headed up by Evert Backstrom. The case gets resolved usually in spite of the leader rather than because of. Probably plenty more teams I’ve read and enjoyed over the years.

    • You’re right about the Persson series, Col. In fact, at some point, I want to do a spotlight of one of those books. I do hope you’ll enjoy the 87th Precinct series. There are some really terrific novels in it, I think.

  8. Well, there you go Margot, I think you ticked all my boxes with so many favourite authors in one post. Deep down it is the family-like feelinbg of these series that I think keeps drawing me back – thanks Margot.

    • I like the way you put that, Sergio! Those series with well-drawn ‘ensemble’ casts do have a sort of ‘family-like’ feel, don’t they? That’s really part of their appeal, and I”m glad you mentioned it – thanks.

  9. I have only read one Fred Vargas book (the first one) but I really enjoyed it and will continue with the series. I also adore the Karin Slaughter series. Her character work is just amazing and I am drawn into her books because of her characters and not because of the plots.

    • The Vargas series is a good one, Rebecca. And I’m glad you mentioned Karin Slaughter’s work, too. That’s another series where you see strong character development; but at the same time, you also see a focus on the plot.

  10. Kathy D.

    Ah, a whole post could be done about Fred Vargas, genius, medieval historian and archaelogist — and expert on the bubonic plague which she uses in one book. She really pushes the genre and our thinking about the parameters of crime fiction; there are none in her writing.

    • She is quite an innovative writer, Kathy. As you say, she charts her own course as far as her novels are concerned. And yet…they work. And she’s got a fascinating background, too.

  11. The first thing that came to mind for me was Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q team. Even though Carl is the main focus of the team, Rose and Assad are valuable members that make the story work.

    • You know, Mason, I was actually thinking of Department Q when I was thinking about this post. But somehow, a mention of it didn’t make it into the post itself. You’re absolutely right about what a great ‘ensemble’ series that is. Thanks for filling in the gap I left.

  12. Margot, as Sergio notes, it is the personal (including family) lives of the main characters in novels, like McBain’s 87th, that I enjoy reading. I don’t absolutely like straightforward mysteries with little or no room for anything other than the investigation. Although Poirot works alone, I like the way Christie has cast a number of colourful people in many of his cases, even if they are mostly suspects. I think, that’s a different kind of teamwork!

    • It really is a different kind of teamwork, isn’t it, Prashant? Those characters do add to the novels, and Christie managed to do that even though Poirot doesn’t have an ‘ensemble cast’ in the way that the 87th Precinct novels do. There is something about a cast of characters, with some depth to them, that makes a crime novel all the more memorable I think.

  13. I do like teams of folks – in anything! I love the Reginald Hill books – though I suppose I have thought of it more as a marriage (of convenience?) than a team but yes – you have reminded me – there is a team. I like the Martha Grimes too – for their two teams – the official one and the village one. Brilliant!

  14. Craig Johnson’s Longmire series features several characters as part of the sheriff’s team. The two deputies, another department employee, and Henry Standing Bear form a formidable group of crime solves.

  15. One of my favorite teams is Karin Slaughter’s Grant County series. The ME and lead detective are ex-spouses who still love each other but fight like cats and dogs. It adds a nice layer and as the books progress you keep hoping they’ll get together. At least I did.

    • You’ve got a well-taken point, Sue, about that extra layer that you get when exes are on the same time. It reminds me of Michael Connelly’s Mickey Haller and his ex, Maggie ‘McFierce’ McPherson. It’s just a fascinating dynamic, isn’t it? And you’re reminding me that I need to do a spotlight on one of Karin Slaughter’s novels one of these times.

  16. I like teamwork in detective novels. You can see the similarities and differences between detective’s styles, and see what each part of the police department does. I like it when the Medical Examiner comes into the mix. And lots of great series here for me to check into.

    • I like that aspect of teamwork too, Tracy. And the fact is, real-life crimes are usually not solved by just one person, even if that one person is considered the lead investigator on a team. It’s a group effort; it really is. So books that depict that are more realistic, at least to me. And you make a good point: the ME is a great addition to the investigating team.

  17. I’m late to the party again, Margot, but I have to jump in here with my favorite ensemble – Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin and the “35th Street Irregulars” – Fritz, Theodore, Saul, Orrie, Fred, Inspector Cramer – the list goes on. Many of us reread the Wolfe books the way others eat comfort food, and for the same reason – we’re totally comfortable with these characters and love to see their interaction and development in book after book.

    • The party never stops here, Les, so you’re never late 🙂 . And I love your contribution. Wolfe’s team is exceptional – all a bit eccentric, all important to the success of the team, and all interesting characters. They know they need each other, too – even Wolfe.

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