by ZJ Czupor
Detective Couples Who Do It—Solve Crimes, That Is
There are many versions of crime-solving couples in novels. We’ve become well acquainted with the likes of Holmes and Watson, Batman and Robin, or spinsters with their too smart cats, working in concert to bring evil to justice.
But the mystery genre is also sprinkled with men and women who flirt and fight in on-again, off-again romances, laced with biting repartee often starting as friends and then tying the knot in marriage, all the while focusing on a way to find that missing person, capture that elusive spy, or disarm that serial killer.
Here are four fictional detective couples worth noting.
NICK AND NORA CHARLES
Perhaps the most famous crime-solving duo in literature is Nick and Nora Charles created by Dashiell Hammett in his 1934 novel, The Thin Man. However, the couple became more popular because of film and played on the big screen before millions of viewers.
The dashing Nick Charles is retired from the Trans-American Detective Agency and married to the rich, beautiful, and unflappable Nora. They enjoy copious drinking and flirtatious banner, like this exchange from the film where Nick is reading newspaper accounts of his recent tussle with a criminal:
Nick Charles: “I’m a hero. I was shot two times in the Tribune.”
Nora Charles: “I read where you were shot five times in the tabloids.”
Nick Charles: “It’s not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.”
Or, banter from the end of the first chapter after Nick has met a pretty blonde at the bar, and Nora walks in.
Nora: “She’s pretty.”
Nick: “If you like them like that.”
Nora: “You got types?”
Nick: “Only you, darling—lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.”
Nora: “And how about the red-head you wandered off with at the Quinns’ last night?”
Nick: “That’s silly. She just wanted to show me some French etchings.”
Hammett said he based Nick and Nora’s banter upon his rocky on-again, off-again relationship to playwright Lillian Hellman (1905-1984).
Crime writer Donald Westlake (1933-2008) called The Thin Man “…a sad, lonely, lost book, that pretended to be cheerful and aware and full of good fellowship…it seems to be telling this, but really telling that: three-dimensional writing, like three-dimensional chess.”
Hammett (1834-1961) is more famously known for penning his third novel, The Maltese Falcon(1930) and is credited with founding the hard-boiled detective school of fiction. His writing was sparse, evocative, with sharply defined characters who spoke with sardonic humor.
The Thin Man was Hammett’s last and was originally published in the December 1933 issue of Redbook magazine. The novel debuted a month later.
But Nick and Nora became immortalized in six “Thin Man” films from 1934-1947, all starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, whose on-screen chemistry brought the couple to life. Nick and Nora also starred in radio dramas on NBC and CBS from 1940-1950 with a succession of actors, and on NBC-TV from 1957-60, with Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk.
By the way, (spoiler alert), the “thin man” from the book and film was not Nick Charles, but the man Nick is initially hired to find.
MGM paid Hammett $21,000 for the screen rights. Then, after he wrote story treatments for the second and third “Thin Man” films, Hammett sold his rights to Nick and Nora Charles for $40,000 ($776,803 in today’s currency).
The ABC-TV series Hart to Hart (1979-1984), starring Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers, imitated The Thin Man concept.
LORD PETER WIMSEY AND HARRIET VANE
When it comes to the “gold standard” in detective pairs, literary critics hand that accolade to Dorothy L. Sayers’ characters Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. Sayers (1893-1957) was an English crime writer who wrote novels and short stories set between the First and Second World Wars.
She created Wimsey as an aristocratic amateur detective—the archetype for the British gentleman who solves crimes as a hobby. Throughout eleven novels and two sets of short stories Wimsey is assisted by his valet, or his brother-in-law who is also a police detective. Sayers said she created Wimsey as the son of a duke with a large income “because after all it cost me nothing and at the time. I was particularly hard up…it gave me great pleasure to spend his fortune for him.”
But he’s paired up with Harriet Vane in four novels.* He first meets the cerebral Harriet, in Strong Poison (1930). Harriet is a mystery writer on trial for poisoning her lover. After Wimsey falls in love with her, he closes the chapter on his various affairs with other women. He said, “it’s a gentleman’s duty to remember whom he had taken to bed so as not to embarrass his bedmate by calling her by the wrong name.”
U.S. critics said the story was filled with suspense and curiosity, with clues and the free-love question of Wimsey’s feelings for Harriet. While they were busy solving crimes, Wimsey was perpetually proposing to Harriet, and at one time even did so in Latin.
Sayers created Harriet as a smart, sharped eye, tart tongued writer of mystery fiction. In Gaudy Night (1935), Harriet describes a fellow college alum “as though she had been carelessly packed away in a drawer all winter and put into circulation again without being ironed.”
Sayers said she consciously modeled Vane on herself with similarities to her own love affair with the Russian author and poet John Cournos (1881-1966). Not to be outdone, Cournos fictionalized their unhappy affair in his own novel, The Devil is an English Gentleman (1932).
After Sayers died, English Author Jill Paton Walsh (1937-2020) took up the Wimsey and Vane characters to continue sleuthing beyond the Second World War. Walsh started by completing Sayers’ unfinished Wimsey and Vane novel, Thrones, Dominations (1998), and continued with A Presumption of Death (2002), The Attenbury Emeralds (2010), and The Late Scholar (2013).
Besides her Peter Wimsey-Harriet Vane mysteries, Walsh is best known for her 1994 Booker prize-nominated novel Knowledge of Angels. Critics called it a serious children’s book for adults. In September 2020, Walsh married her third husband Nicholas Herbert, the 3rd Baron of Hemingford. Sadly, she passed away a month later at the age of 83.
TOMMY AND TUPPENCE
Mystery writer Dame Agatha Christie (1890-1976), broke literary ground in many ways, but she created two fictional detectives in The Secret Adversary (1922). Thomas Beresford and his wife, Prudence, better known as “Tommy and Tuppence,” are charismatic and impulsive.
They start out as good friends then reunite after the First World War when they start their detective agency called, “The Young Adventurers.” At the conclusion of their first case, in which they find a missing person, they fall in love and engage to marry.
They are also the only characters Christie created that age, like Christie in real life. They marry at the end of the first book, and in addition to chasing international spies, killers, a poltergeist, and survive a case of black magic and two world wars, they raise three children over the course of four novels and a short story collection.
Christie wrote about the characters in a light tone setting them up as a privileged and likeable pair with plenty of money and time on their hands. As they age, Christie keeps them charming and in good humor, but as her stories progress, the tone becomes more serious.
Tommy and Tuppence appear together in The Secret Adversary (1922), Partners in Crime (a short story collection, 1929), N or M? (1941), By the Picking of My Thumbs (1968), and Postern of Fate (1973).
PATRICK KENZIE AND ANGELA GENNARO
A more modern couple is Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, who started out as childhood friends, eventually marry, and run a detective agency in Boston. Patrick and Angela are young, witty, tough and flawed, and the brainchild of award-winning author Dennis Lehane.
Patrick and Angela are featured in six hard-boiled novels starting with Lehane’s first, A Drink Before the War (1994), which won him the 1995 Shamus Award for Best First P.I. Novel.
The young detectives also star in Darkness, Take My Hand (1996); Sacred (1997); Gone Baby Gone(1998); Prayers for Rain (1999); and Moonlight Mile (2010). Gone Baby Gone was released as a neo-noir mystery/thriller film in 2007 and won multiple awards.
Throughout their adventures, Patrick and Angela find a missing woman who stole secret documents, help a psychiatrist running from the Irish mob, find a lost girl, track a sadistic killer who targets women, and revisit the case of a lost girl they once found but who is now sixteen and gone again.
In Moonlight Mile, they are nearly broke but sneak away to a downtown hotel in Boston for an afternoon rendezvous. After some torrid sex, they banter:
Patrick (looks out the window at the traffic jam below): “We leave now or we leave an hour from now, we’ll get home the same time.”
Angela: “What do you have in mind?”
Patrick: “Shameful, shameful things.”
Angela: “We have the sitter ’til seven-thirty.”
Patrick: “Ample time.”
Angela (after some deep, unhurried kissing): “Let’s have a few dozen more of those…”
Angela: “And then a bit more of that thing we tried an hour ago…”
Patrick: “That was interesting, wasn’t it?”
You can find plenty of entertaining crime-solving partners in a host of contemporary novels by such authors as S.J. Rozan, Nelson DeMille, Jeffrey Deaver, Lisa Gardner, J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts), Tess Gerritsen, Anne Perry, and many, many more.
Mystery readers appreciate it when detective couples are portrayed as clever, likeable people who love each other, yet have their own set of conflicts. With the reader in tow, along for the journey, authors keep the three of us not only entertained but focused on solving the crime.
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*Sayer’s four Wimsey and Vane novels are Strong Poison (1930), Have His Carcase (1932), Gaudy Night (1935), and Busman’s Honeymoon (1937).