Let the heathen be wakened, and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat: for there will I sit to judge all the heathen round about.
I don’t often quote from The Old Testament but this passage, from The Book of Joel, seems appropriate. Jehoshaphat was the fourth king of the kingdom of Judah and over time his name became synonymous with Jesus and was used as an expletive, one which happens to be the favourite expletive of the character Elijah Baley from a series of books by Isaac Asimov. Baley is an NYPD homicide detective and he lives thousands of years in the future. He is just one of the many characters I’d like to celebrate today. The crime fiction genre is so wide and so deep that there is an astonishing range of characters who, far too often, lose out to more popular, more mainstream ones. Today’s post is therefore devoted to five detective double acts that I think should have a place on your shelf.
- Elijah Baley and his robot assistant R. Daneel Olivaw first appear in The Caves of Steel (1954) and go on to star in several other works in what would become known as Asimov’s Robot series. Baley’s use of Jehoshaphat as an expletive stems from Asimov’s own dislike of vulgar, crude and profane outbursts. In addition, Asimov, who also disliked blood and bloody murder, deliberately starts The Caves of Steel after the murder has already been committed. It was a plot device he used often. The pairing of a homicide detective and a robot may sound strange, but in Asimov’s skilled hands it is both touching and compelling.
- Nick and Nora Charles from The Thin Man (1934) by Dashiell Hammett provide a reminder, if one were needed, of the supreme genius that Hammett possessed. His husband and wife detective double act was so staggeringly successful that it spawned several more books as well as many film, television, theatre and radio adaptations. It also helped to create a subgenre all of its own, the romantically linked detective duo. Remington Steele and Moonlighting may have seemed new in the 1980s, but Hammett was doing this in the 1930s. Nick, a booze-riddled hardboiled private investigator and Nora, a glamorous and wealthy society girl were so popular that Hammett began eventually to resent them and in 1939 he sold the rights to the characters for the modern-day equivalent of around two million dollars. Staggering. I can’t recommend them enough.
- Thomas and Prudence Beresford (or Tommy and Tuppence as they quickly became known) first appeared in Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary (1922) and would go on to star in several novels and short stories ending, over 50 years later, with Postern of Fate (1973). What I love the most about them is that Christie breaks with her usual tradition and actually ages the characters throughout the books so that they are in their seventies when the series ends. Tommy and Tuppence’s failing memories in Postern of Fate gives them a vulnerability that echoes the fading of their creator. It was the last novel that the Queen of Crime ever wrote and her command of character floods the story as strongly at the end of the series as it does at the beginning.
- Bertha Cool and Donald Lam from Erle Stanley Gardner writing under the pseudonym of A.A. Fair. Gardner was perhaps most famous for creating Perry Mason but his creation of Cool and Lam spawned a partnership that lasted from The Bigger They Come (1939) to All Grass isn’t Green (1970) with a radio portrayal of Donald Lam by no less than Frank Sinatra in between. Snappy dialogue, as you would expect from Gardner, the pair and their agency are everything good about noir. The series runs to nearly 30 books and if you like Perry Mason, I think you’ll also like Cool and Lam.
- Finally, a pairing very close to my heart. The characters of Hasdai ben Shaprut and General Ghalib are the central pillars of a growing series of books by Mark Dewar set in Arabic Spain and now published in both English and Spanish. Hasdai and Ghalib were real people and my writing partner and I have tried to be as respectful as possible in the way we have used them. In a way, they are a classic double act. Brains and charm on the one hand (Hasdai), blood and thunder on the other (Ghalib). However, they also lived and walked the ground we are writing about. I owe them a great deal.
We often talk, and rightly so, about famous detectives and even famous double acts. But the crime fiction pool is so deep there is plenty of room for others. This, from Nick and Nora Charles.
She laughed. “All right, all right. Still want to leave for San Francisco tomorrow?”
“Not unless you’re in a hurry. Let’s stick around awhile. This excitement has put us behind in our drinking.”
So very good.