The Crime Readers' Association

J C BriggsPartners in Crime by Jean Briggs

16th October 2015


Are we to have a Watson? The question is asked by A.A. Milne.  His only detective story, The Red House Mystery, gives the answer. Milnes’s amateur detective, Antony Gillingham who ‘was born noticing things’, has his partner in Bill Beverley, a guileless youth, quite prepared to be what Gillingham wants him to be: ‘the complete Watson’.

Guileless and eager Bill (By Jove, a secret passage!) is the perfect foil for the analytical and observant Gillingham. Dependable Watson is the foil for the mercurial, moody Holmes just as the good-natured, perpetually surprised Captain Hastings (Good Lord, Poirot!) is the foil for the subtle, psychologically acute Hercule Poirot of ‘the little grey cells’, and stolid Lewis is the foil for the complex and irascible Morse.

A.A. Milne explains his reasons for wanting a Watson : ‘Death to the author who keeps his unravelling to the last chapter … Let us know from chapter to chapter what the detective is thinking. For this he must watsonise or soliloquise ,,, A Watson then …’

It is true that it is through the Watson figure that we can follow the mechanics of the case and test our theories against those of the great detective, wondering if we might solve the puzzle before he does. Yet, there is more than that, I fancy, in the role of the partner. There is contrast of course: the brilliant Holmes figure set against the more plodding side-kick; worldly experience set against innocence; complexity set against simplicity; secrecy against openness. From such contrasts come the tension and suspense vital to the mystery.

But there need not always be superiority set against inferiority. The partners may be equal if different. Take Bryant and May, Christopher Fowler’s elderly detectives from the Peculiar Crimes Unit. Bryant is the shabby one in his moth-eaten Harris tweed coat, May is elegant in his black raincoat – but they are in it together.

There may be the contrast of male and female – the married couple, for example. In the relationship of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, there is the added piquancy (for 1928) of Tuppence being the more daring. Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane are equals, I should say. Lord Peter is given depth by his war experiences and his fears about the achievement of his marriage. Murder brings them together. Something is added to Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion by his relationship with Lady Amanda Fitton, not least because she is an aircraft designer.

With the female detective and her male subordinate there can be all sorts of tensions: rank, rivalry, sexual attraction, male chauvinism all add to the central relationship. And if the senior officer is in love with his female subordinate then he has his doubts and disappointments to contend with as well as his fears about solving the case.

Two female detectives: think Cagney and Lacey and Scott and Bailey. Their lives and loves outside the case give the characters complexity, and the audience is always interested in their handling of the kids as well as the cases. And there are the female detectives of earlier periods. What about Linda Stratmann’s Victorian lady detective, Frances Doughty, and her sidekick, Sarah? There’s a good partnership – they begin as mistress and maid, but become equals in crime.

The partnership may operate in 2015 or it may operate in the distant past: think Sarah Hawkswood’s twelfth century Bradecote and Catchpoll. Elizabethan England might be the setting. I’m thinking of Rory Clements’s intelligencer, John Shakespeare, and his partner, loyal, crippled Boltfoot. There’s the added delight of appearances by brother, Will. In the nineteenth century there is Anne Perry’s duo, William Monk and his wife, Hester. Wherever they belong, the partnership is central as is any relationship between two human beings, whatever their sex or age. The relationships make the detectives human, expose their flaws, highlight their vulnerabilities, and whatever their faults, impatience, arrogance, weakness for drink or women or men, engage our sympathies and have us on their side.

It is a winning formula. So, yes, we are to have a Watson. But, as A.A. Milne says: ‘not necessarily a fool of a Watson’.

Dickens is credited with the creation of the first literary detective in Inspector Bucket, he of the eloquent fat forefinger. Does he have a partner? Not exactly. He has a wife. Is she a fool of a wife? Certainly not. Dickens says of her that she was ‘a lady of natural detective genius, which if it had been improved by professional exercise, might have done great things, but which paused at the level of a clever amateur.’

Could Mr and Mrs Bucket be the first husband and wife detective partnership? It seems so. Mrs Bucket’s observational powers and cunning are essential to the arrest of the murderer. Bucket tells Sir Leicester Deadlock that ‘this case could never have been the case it is but for Mrs Bucket, who is a woman in fifty thousand – in a hundred and fifty thousand!’ It is Mrs Bucket who sees the murderer writing incriminating letters. It is Mrs Bucket who secretly watches the posting of every letter. It is Mrs Bucket who secures the murderer’s writing paper and ink, and it is Mrs Bucket who leads her husband to the discovery of the murder weapon.  And Bucket, observing her with the murderer of Mr Tulkinghorn, remarks ‘There you are, my partner, eh?’

So, not a fool of a Watson. In my Charles Dickens mysteries, Dickens’s partner could not be a fool or plodding simpleton who waits for the Inimitable to solve the case while he looks on open-mouthed. Dickens could hardly go about London investigating murders on his own. He had to have a partner, a real policeman. Enter Superintendent Sam Jones of Bow Street.  The Victorian Superintendent had authority; he could sanction the use of firearms, he could authorise the use of plain clothes, and I’ve no doubt that he could recruit Mr Dickens. Sam Jones: equal, sometimes superior, friend, father-figure, protector sometimes:

Sam seized Dickens by the arm and thrust him against the wall. In the light of his lamp, they saw briefly a white face, two black holes for eyes, and a snarling dog-like mouth. And the glint of a knife…

Saving the life of the great author, eh? Thank goodness. Just think – if Dickens had been … Oh, sorry, I forget they are not real. Imaginary friends, I have, and so, I hope do you, dear readers, my partners in crime.

JEAN BRIGGS  taught English and Drama in various schools, from Hong Kong to Lancashire. She enjoyed writing plays, especially spoof murder mysteries: A is for Arsenic, B is for Bludgeon, C is for Cyanide were all set in ridiculously clichéd country houses, featuring sinister butlers and half-mad aristocrats poisoning or bashing their way to inheritances. A Lesson in Murder saw the slaughter of half a staff room by a lunatic former pupil bent on revenge –naturally, that went down very well with the pupils. The highest point of her career as a playwright came with a performance of a reduced Hamlet in the presence of The Queen – not an ideal choice, she thought afterwards – almost the entire court of Denmark slaughtered.

Then Jean retired and moved to a cottage in Cumbria. Her players were gone – and her audience. She missed the teaching and writing. What next? A novel, perhaps? It was 2012, the bicentenary of Charles Dickens. Time to re-read him and to discover his articles on the police in his magazine Household Words. An idea was born – suppose Dickens was involved in a murder case? As far as Jean knew, he wasn’t, but he had portrayed murder and he had created detectives: the private detective Nadgett in Martin Chuzzlewit and Inspector Bucket in Bleak House. Dickens explores the psychology of the murderer; he understands human nature; he constructs a narrative; he has imagination, and he knows the streets of London – surely these would make him a skilful investigator. He admired the police so she invented a partner for him, a professional policeman from Bow Street.The idea was worth a try. She wrote the first of the Dickens and Jones mysteries: The Murder of Patience Brooke which is to be published by The History Press in August 2014.The next two cases: Hungerford Stairs and Murder by Ghostlight are finished and another is on the way. D is now, of course, for Dickens!


Photos Click thumbnails to enlarge

Go back to Blog

Join the CRA

Joining the CRA is FREE. There are no lengthy forms to fill out and we need nothing but your email. You will receive a regular newsletter but no spam.