Crime-Solving Odd Couples
Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series has a lot of things going for it – George’s knowledge of all things British, her psychological insights into both the good guys and the bad guys, both of whom are pretty complicated.
But the thing that has drawn me back to her books is the wonderful odd couple she created in Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers. What an oddly matched pair! Lynley is aristocratic, introspective and very, very well dressed. Havers is working class, outspoken and very, very badly dressed. The trait they have in common is that they both are, at heart, rebels, and like a lot of heroes in detective novels, they need that trait to battle the bureaucracy and/or the power structure. They have an ironclad commitment to getting to the truth of things.
It’s an interesting concept but one that must be successful, because there are so many odd couples in crime fiction! I have to say, once again, that this construction owes a huge debt to Arthur Conan Doyle. I believe he created Doctor Watson – normal v.s. Sherlock’s erratic qualities, above-average intelligence against Sherlock’s brilliance – because Sherlock needed a foil. He was just too chilly a character otherwise.
Here are some other great odd couples in detective fiction:
Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis. The English author Colin Dexter, a classics teacher, created these characters, and the rest, as they say, is literary and television history. Dexter wrote 13 novels in the Inspector Morse series, starting with “Last Bus to Woodstock.” Then came the television series based on Dexter’s books, starring the great actor John Thaw, which ran for thirteen seasons in England and America.
Morse, the main character in these tales, is an extremely odd duck. He went to Oxford and he still works there are a police detective, , but he’s practically allergic to the snobbishness and pretentions of the Oxford academic community. He is an extremely cultured man – he loves opera – but he works with a mostly working class police force. And he, like Lynley, is basically a rebel, despite the fact that he drives a Jaguar.
Then there’s the other side of the odd couple. Sargeant Lewis, a good-hearted, decent family man who has basically risen from the working class. This man is patient beyond belief with Morse’s idiosyncracies, including a penchant for never picking up the tab in the bar. In the television series, Lewis was played by the British actor Kevin Whately, who perhaps was not quite as patient with Morse as in the books.
Whately played this part to perfection, and his patience was rewarded when, after John Thaw died, he became the senior partner in another odd couple for another great television series – Inspector Lewis and Sergeant Hathaway. In this odd couple, Lewis is the salt-of-the-earth type and Hathaway, played by Laurence Fox, is his well-dressed, cerebral, and very dishy counterpart., a young man who went to Cambridge and then seminary, dropped out but still wrestles with deep questions about the nature of religious belief.
Together, these odd couples, both inspired by the Colin Dexter books, have been giving pleasure to viewers years. We owe a lot to Dexter’s inspired way with characters and the fact that it rains a lot in Wales – he started writing the Morse series when he was trapped by the rain on a holiday in that country.
Moving on, I would like to mention a couple of lesser known odd couples:
Inspector Reg Wexford and Mike Burden. The great crime writer Ruth Rendell created this pair, and I have read and loved every single one of these books – 24 of them, starting with “From Doon With Death.”
Rendell writes under two names. She writes the Wexford series under her own name, and she writes standalone novels under the name Barbara Vine. Not to torture an analogy too much, but this is a sort of authorial odd couple in the head of one very talented woman – the Barbara Vine novels can be pretty dark, but the Wexford series is informed by the basic decency of Wexford.
Wexford is essentially old England – he likes the way things were. He’s a family man. He views the changes in his country with a mix of interest and melancholy, as his beloved England has become an uneasy multicultural mix. He’s compassionate. He’s fair. And, at bottom, he’s a great thinker.
His foil is Mike Burden, a fellow officer of the law who in most of the books answered to Wexford as a boss. Wexford is an unprepossing dresser; Burden is a virtual peacock (one of the pleasure of these books is Rendell’s descriptions of Burden’s immaculately tailored and perfectly matched suits.). He is a foil for Wexford’s ideas; sometimes Wexford has a hard time making anyone understand his train of thought, and Burden provides great pushback.. Together these two guys have enjoyed countless meals and drinks together and solved countless intricate who-done-it puzzles – I have to say I never, ever know who did it in a Rendell book until the very end!. In the most recent novels, Wexford has retired, and Burden has become the boss – he draws Wexford into cime solving at his pleasure. It’s an interesting role reversal.
John Rebus and Siobhan Clarke. We move north to Scotland for this odd couple. Of course, we’ve had their creator, the immensely talented Scottish author Ian Rankin, on the show.
This odd couple of really odd. Rebus is an old-school cop who doesn’t just not go by the book, he throws the book out the window in the first few pages. He smokes like a fiend, has a horrible diet and has absolutely no ambitions other than to solve crimes.
Rankin did a brilliant pairing with these two. Clarke is a young woman (though she ages as the series proceeds). She’s ambitious. She’s a sharp dresser. She’s a health nut who gets antsy if she doesn’t get to the gym once a day. She knows how to use a computer, which Rebus indefatigably resists.
The most interesting thing about these two is that Rebus, as I mentioned, is the opposite of ambitious, and Clarke is very much so. As the series proceeds and as she rises in the ranks, her association with and respect for Rebus becomes more and more of a liability. It’s a very interesting tension. Start with “Knots and Crosses,” the first Rebus novel. There are 19 in all.
Finally, I want to go full circle back to Sherlock Holmes and mention the oddest couple of all – Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell, created by the author Laurie B. King, who we have also had on the show. In this series Holmes meets his intellectual match in a young woman; they become partners and eventually husband and wife. Holmes had so little use for women in the original series, this concept basically blew my mind when I heard about it. But King makes it work in her favor; we see the eras she marches her characters through through the eyes of a woman as well as a man. Since the series’ devotees are mostly women, this was an inspired idea, to say the least. Start with “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice” – there are 12 in all.