Odd Couples in Crime Fighting
Jayne Ann Krentz’s latest work of romantic suspense , “When All the Girls Are Gone,” features a classic feature of crime fiction – the odd couple. Charlotte is earnest and caring; Max is tough and restrained – until Charlotte gets his blood up, anyway. In Krentz’s world opposites attract and romance ensues, as well as quite a lot of danger and suspense.
This pairing has been used so often in crime fiction and suspense novels, I feel like it must be deeply attractive to the reader for some very basic reason. We all want to hope that, when push comes to shove, humans will respect one another’s differences and pull together to right a wrong.
Often, in these odd couple pairings, two heads are better than one – the partners complement each other. Here are some well-known couples in crime fiction. In some cases, opposites attract and romance blooms; in other cases, what happens is deep respect and friendship.
When J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, decided to write a mystery, she used the pen name Robert Galbraith. Well, her secret didn’t last long; the true author of The Cuckoo’s Calling, her first book featuring the British vet and private detective Cormoran Strike, was revealed, and sales took off like a rocket.
The Cormoran Strike books have convinced me that Rowling is one of the most talented and versatile writers ever. Cormoran is quite a creation – a war hero from his service in Afghanistan, where he lost a leg; a cynical veteran of military intelligence. He is burly, tough and gruff, and doesn’t have much patience for English politesse. Then Cormoran hires a beautiful young office temp named named Robin Ellacott to fill in as his (much needed) office assistant. Robin is a proper young English woman (engaged to a proper young English man), but she is smart, resourceful and increasingly attracted to Cormoran.
The Cuckoo’s Calling, the first book in this series, is about the death of a beautiful model. The subject gave Rowling free rein to write about the perils of celebrity, something she knows quite a lot about.
There are three books, and a fourth is planned. If Cormoran and Robin don’t pair up eventually I will eat my notebook, but part of the delicious nature of this story is watching the sparks fly while waiting for that to happen.
Here’s another odd couple – Vera Stanhope and Joe Ashworth in Ann Cleeves’ great Vera Stanhope books. Vera is one of crime fiction’s great creations. She is a single, lonely, unattractive middle-aged woman who looks more like someone’s eccentric aunt than what she is – a Detective Chief Inspector, the head of a crime squad in a northeastern English town. Vera’s fusty appearance hides a razor-sharp intellect and a total dedication to solving crimes.
Joe is her sergeant and protégé. This is not a romantic relationship; more mother and son, except that Vera would be a difficult mother – she’s demanding and critical. Joe is a straight arrow – married with children, ambitious to move up in the ranks. He knows he can learn a lot from Vera, but she is very hard to live and work with – a caustic, undiplomatic truth-teller.
The Vera books feature meticulous plotting and great atmosphere; they bring alive Northumberland, a remote corner of northeast England. No surprise that they have been made into a TV series starring the great actress Brenda Blethyn. Because of the popularity of the series, most of the books are now available in this country – try the first, The Crow Trap. (Be patient; Vera takes a while to show up in this story, but it’s worth the wait.)
Moving north to Scotland, I have to mention one of my favorite mystery series – Ian Rankin’s John Rebus books. When Rankin thought up Detective John Rebus of the Edinburgh police, I’m guessing he didn’t realize that he had created a character who would come to be loved by millions of readers.
Rebus is an old-school cop who doesn’t just not go by the book – he throws the book out the window. He smokes like a fiend, has a horrible diet and has absolutely no ambitions other than to solve crimes.
His counterpart is Siobhan Clarke, a young, ambitious woman who admires Rebus’ smarts, but who fears that one day he will jump off the deep end and take her with him. 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. 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.
If you haven’t tried out these books – I envy you reading them for the first time! Start with Knots and Crosses, the first Rebus mystery. There are 20 Rebus books, and a 21st is due out in 2017.
Moving south to the area around Cambridge, you will find a different kind of odd couple – a detective and a priest. I’m talking about James Runcie’s Sidney Chambers mysteries, starting with Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death. Sidney Chambers is an Anglican priest who tends to a parish in a village outside of Cambridge. Sidney is thoughtful, intellectual, a gentleman. He has one roguish streak – he is obsessed with solving crimes.
His odd couple partner is Geordy Keating, a rough-hewn local detective who doesn’t buy any of Sidney’s theology, but who increasingly relies on Sidney for friendship and for another brain to apply to some very perplexing crimes. Sidney is single (at least initially); Geordy is a family man.
You may have seen the TV adaptation of these books, the “Grantchester” series on PBS. They’re a great place to start, but the books go deeper – Runcie’s father was the Archbishop of Canterbury and he is great at considering the great questions of faith and doubt and the war between good and evil, selfishness and generosity in human nature. Start with Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death – you will be glad you did.
Finally, this might be the oddest couple of all – Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell, created by San Francisco author Laurie B. King. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes book, the less Holmes had to do with women, the better. But in King’s retelling, Holmes meets his intellectual match in a young woman; they become crime-solving partners and eventually husband and wife.
This is a great vehicle for viewing the Victorian age through the eyes of a woman as well as a man. The series shows no signs of flagging, but start with the first book, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.