It all started with Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. While other literary detectives preceded the duo, there is really little question that Arthur Conan Doyle's creations, Holmes and Watson, represent an early archetype for the crime-fighting duo. It's still easy to see Doyle's influence in books, film, and television today, both literally and in spirit.
Some might see Watson merely as a sidekick, but that would be both inaccurate and unjust to the complexity and importance of his character. The sidekick's role is akin to that of the straight man in comedy. Underappreciated, yet essential. Watson might not have Holmes's powers of deduction, but he brings a strength and humanity to the team as an equal partner. The stories just aren't the same without him.
From their first appearance in "A Study in Scarlet," the literary investigative team was born. A tradition that continues to evolve with partner dynamics and more complex pairings finding their way into the mystery genre.
In my Jimmy Veeder Fiascoes series, I make my attempt to bring a fresh approach to the genre. In their most recent adventure, Plaster City, Jimmy Veeder and his best friend Bobby Maves tear through the desert towns of southern California in search of Bobby's missing teenage daughter. Loyalty drives the team, pushing them past their own limitations and testing their friendship, all while trying to fend off the dangers of the Calexico/Mexicali border.
Below is really the beginning of a list, some of the more interesting entries in the genre, but by no means exhaustive. Rather, I tried to pick relationships with unique dynamics. To be perfectly honest, it feels incomplete without Batman and Robin, but Robin really hasn't been a part of that story for some time.
1. Lord Peter Wimsey & Bunter - created by Dorothy L. Sayers.
First appearance: Whose Body? (1923)
A direct descendent of Holmes & Watson, with the added twist that Bunter is Lord Peter's valet, as well as his assistant in his investigations. That unique relationship creates a dynamic between the two men that offers a bit of commentary on class along with an always clever mystery.
2. Nero Wolfe & Archie Goodwin - created by Rex Stout.
First appearance: Fer-de-Lance (1934)
I think of these as "Nero Wolfe stories," but like Watson, it is Archie Goodwin who narrates the stories and does all the dirty work. What makes these so essential is that they mark a transition in the mystery genre, existing as a rare combination of the classic armchair detective, but with a hint of the hard-boiled as Archie hits the streets to gather clues for Wolfe to untangle.
3. Gravedigger Jones & Coffin Ed Johnson - created by Chester Himes.
First appearance: A Rage in Harlem (1957)
"Line up!" "Count off!" It wouldn't be much of a list if there weren't two cops on it. And the toughest of those police officers are Harlem detectives Jones & Johnson. Find the fastest thriller out this year. Double the pace and you'll get close to the breakneck momentum of Himes's crime novels. Violent and funny masterpieces that everyone should read and reread.
4. The Three Investigators - created by Robert Arthur, Jr.
First appearance: The Secret of Terror Castle (1964)
For many crime writers, the kid detectives got the ball rolling. I'm sure there are a lot of Hardy Boys fans out there, but this is my list. And for me, Jupe, Pete, and Bob were twice the detectives. Come on, they worked out of a trailer buried in scrap at the salvage yard. The plots were more complex and well-structured. And Alfred Hitchcock would show up for a cameo in each one. Yes, that Alfred Hitchcock. You can't get much better than that.
5. Spenser & Hawk - created by Robert B. Parker.
First appearance of Spenser: The Godwulf Manuscript (1973)
First appearance of Hawk: Promised Land (1976)
While most people know them from the TV show, Spenser, For Hire, Spenser and Hawk's relationship has a much broader and more interesting arc within the novels. Hawk in no man's Watson. He's Spenser's equal, maybe even a little better at the job than Spenser. A leading man as sidekick. The guy that the hero goes to when the trouble gets too big to play by the rules. A mutual respect between them, but no clear leader.
6. Hap Collins & Leonard Pine - created by Joe R. Lansdale.
First appearance: Savage Season (1990)
One of the most entertaining and most original duos within the genre. It's a big challenge to make two characters as different as Hap and Leonard while still believing they would be friends. Lansdale accomplishes this effortlessly. We never doubt the depth of their loyalty to each other. And Hap and Leonard stand as one of the few examples of a straight and a gay character where their sexuality rarely comes into play. Friendships between men are always both simple and complex at the same time. These books capture that amid some riotously fun chaos.
7. Easy Rawlins & Mouse - created by Walter Mosley.
First appearance: Devil in a Blue Dress (1990)
Where Hawk works with Spenser for money, basically a sidekick-for-hire, Mouse helps Easy because he's his friend. Even if he's a dangerous one. A maniac-at-the-ready. We all know that guy. The one that would help you no matter what, but you know their help could be more trouble than the trouble. But there's nothing like having a loyal sociopath just in case things get too rough. Mouse is violence incarnate, unpredictable and dangerous. Every scene he appears in keeps the reader (and Easy) on edge.
8. Stephanie Plum & Ranger - created by Janet Evanovich.
First appearance: One for the Money (1994)
While most of the detectives on this list are men, that's definitely not the only dynamic. From book to book, Stephanie Plum has grown more experienced as a bounty hunter. However, in the early books, she's at the beginning of that learning curve, Ranger as her mentor. Obi-Wan to Plum's Luke, but with the added fun of sexual tension between them. While Plum is definitely the hero, Ranger brings more experience and a mysterious past into the mix. A bit larger than life, but in a conscious, fun way.
9. Tony Hill & Carol Jordan - created by Val McDermid.
First appearance: The Mermaids Singing (1995)
Most people would maybe classify this relationship within the Mulder & Scully vein (another great duo), but it's actually much closer to the traditional Holmes/Watson relationship. The eccentric, but brilliant Tony Hill and police detective Carol Jordan bring Doyle's tradition to the present. And as is common with the male/female team-ups, it offers a certain amount of romantic tension to all their interactions.
10. Walt Longmire & Henry Standing Bear - created by Craig Johnson.
First appearance: The Cold Dish (2004)
The best partners/sidekicks are the ones that bring completely different perspectives to the table. If the characters are too alike, they don't need each other and it strips the proceedings of the necessary conflict. If the characters' knowledge and experience are different then they complement each other. As the sheriff of Absaroka County, Walt often has cases that bleed over into the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. That's where longtime friend, Henry Standing Bear comes in. Two living, breathing characters.
11. Jimmy Veeder & Bobby Maves - created by Johnny Shaw.
First appearance: Dove Season (2011)
Doing my best to follow in the footsteps of these giants, I created life-long friends Jimmy & Bobby. Jimmy left to see the world. Bobby stayed and worked the farm. When Jimmy returns to the Calexico/Mexicali border town of his youth, he tries to settle in to a straight life. Bobby, on the other hand, fights a war on boredom through regular bouts of drinking, fighting, and general mayhem. Together they seem to find trouble wherever they go. They're not mysteries, they're fiascoes.