It’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.