What makes great crime fighting partners? One mind, two bodies? Opposites attract? An office romance – or bromance? Or do you simply need a yes-man for your genius?
I explore what makes crime fighting partners successful and compelling – and the building blocks required for writing a solid partnership. As the old Hollywood maxim goes: “The same, only different”.
But first, a little background…
Crime Fighting Partners: A History
From the very beginning of detective fiction, our heroes have worked in pairs. C. Auguste Dupin and his anonymous narrator friend, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson – a great detective can hardly impress if he has no one to question him.
Early cinema derived heavily from detective fiction, including Dupin and Holmes, and brought Lord Peter Wimsey and his camera-wielding valet Bunter to screen. In the world of comic books, Batman Issue #1 introduces both Caped Crusader and acrobatic sidekick Robin.
In the world of television, the 1960s brought an explosion of crime fighting partners in the form of the Buddy Cop Show. Starsky & Hutch, Adam-12, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) – the forefathers of a tradition that continued with Miami Vice and Cagney and Lacey in the 1980s and into the 1990s with two of my personal favourites: The Sentinel and Due South.
As we increasingly acknowledge the existence of women, crime fighting partners in the present day are increasingly of the opposite sex (with the obligatory Unresolved Sexual Tension). There is also more “high concept” involved, usually someone bringing a special skill to a police outfit – con artist turned good, crime writer, android.
But what is it about crime fighting partners that make them so popular? And how can a writer creating such a partnership tap into that success with an original twist?
Here’s what I consider to be the vital ingredients in creating great crime fighting partners:
Each partner should bring something to the table. In the original Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories, Holmes is a genius private detective and Watson is an ex-army doctor, diarist and sounding board. Holmes is the senior partner, but Watson has a valid role. Some later adaptations sought to “dumb down” John Watson, a similar fate to Captain Hastings with Hercule Poirot. In BBC Sherlock, our titular hero gives a lovely best man speech about what John brings to their partnership.
In the aforementioned case of the special character landing in a police procedural, the “typical” partner brings the power of their official role and knowledge of sound crime fighting methodology. They are usually gifted at interrogation, like Kate Beckett in Castle or Teresa Lisbon in The Mentalist.
Sometimes, the benefit is in completely opposition, lending insight to each other and balancing out the extremes. This is seen in conservative former Army Ranger and man’s-man Jim Ellison and hippie touchy-feely anthropologist Blair Sandburg in The Sentinel, with the additional benefit of Blair guiding Jim through his Sentinel experience. Slightly outside crime fighting, this dynamic is also seen in The X-Files – Mulder’s belief and Scully’s scepticism.
From finishing each other’s sentences to always having each other’s backs, the perfect crime fighting partners become one. They are inseparable, they are interlocking pieces of a puzzle – one cannot function at their best without the other. It is this element that primes the UST in many crime fighting partners, which may lead to romance or disaster.
This is often best demonstrated when one partner is temporarily removed from the equation. In similar fashion to the infamous horror movie line “let’s split up”, this never ends well. Starsky and Hutch do this A LOT, and it forms a vital component in 2004 movie adaptation. With police consultants, they often get chucked out by higher-ups, leaving their cop companions to struggle on – or consult them on the quiet.
And last, but by no means least…
The Crime Cannot Be Solved Without Both
This last component is a property of the plot more than the partnership characterisation. The writer must sell a convincing argument that these are the Only People For The Job – this crime can only be solved by these people, working together as a partnership.
In the Millennium trilogy, Mikael Blomkvist uses his investigative journalism skills to start uncovering the mystery but it takes Lisbeth Salander’s skill as a hacker to further their cause. In TV shows like Psych, Castle, The Mentalist, Numb3rs, and Almost Human, the special skill of the “other” partner must always be part of the crime-solving process – whether it’s the writer’s imagination or mathematical modelling, it has to a vital step.
Putting It All Together
The key to The Crime Fighting Partners Formula is this: the crime cannot be solved without both partners and the unique skills they bring to the relationship, working together seamlessly as one high-functioning unit.
In my novel Binary Witness, Amy is an agoraphobic hacker, making capable of immense technological feats but unable to step outside her front door. Her crime fighting partner is Jason, a streetwise ex-con who can be her man about town, gathering information on suspects that’s outside the limitations of the internet. At first, they completely fail to understand each other, but by working as a pair, they are able to solve the mystery – which they could not do without each other.
Who are your favourite crime fighting partners? Do they fit the formula? Share your thoughts in the comments!