The old saying that ‘two heads are better than one’ certainly has its place in crime fiction. There are many novels where cases are solved by pairs (Holmes and Watson, Poirot and Hastings, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, to name just three). And plenty of police procedurals show how police work together to solve crimes.
One interesting sort of ‘teamwork’ novel is what I’ll call detection clubs. These are groups of amateurs who work together to solve crimes and other mysteries. It’s not easy to write these novels well, because amateurs don’t have access to the resources and information that the police have. They can be fun to read, though, and when they’re done well, they can be engaging.
Carol Norton’s The Seven Sleuths Club is as much a ‘coming of age’ story as it is a mystery story. Seven girls who attend school together decide to form a detective club when they find out that their brothers have formed a sleuth club called the Conan Doyle Club. When one of the boys claims that girls can’t solve mysteries (the book was published in 1928), the girls decide to prove him wrong. They form their own club and look for mysteries to solve. Then, a new girl named Geraldine comes to town, and things change both for the club members and for Geraldine. And, as you would expect, the team finds mysteries to solve in their own quiet town.
If you grew up with Enid Blyton stories, then you’ll be familiar with her Famous Five series and her Fantastic (later Adventurous) Four series. In both sets of books, groups of young people team up to solve mysteries and have adventures. They work together, and each brings something to the story. It’s interesting, too, to see how Blyton integrates their characters.
Groups of adults can team up to solve mysteries, too, of course. For example, Agatha Christie’s The Thirteen Problems (AKA The Tuesday Club Murders) is a collection of short stories. Its overarching theme is a group of friends who gather every Tuesday evening to discuss crime. One of the members, Joyce Lemprière, describes the club this way:
‘How would it be if we formed a Club? What is today? Tuesday? We will call it the Tuesday Night Club. It is to meet every week, and each member in turn is to propound a problem. Some mystery of which they have personal knowledge, and to which, of course, they know the answer.’
The others agree to this, and the club begins its discussions. Miss Marple is one of the group members, so you can guess that she’s a valued contributor…
Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case is another example of a group of people working on solving a mystery together. In it, we learn that chocolatier Mason and Stone has developed a new variety of chocolates. The company wants publicity for the new product, so they send a box to Sir Eustace Pennefather, presumably as a gift to induce him try them and then buy the chocolates. Sir Eustace, though, dislikes chocolates. So, he gives the candy to Graham Bendix, a fellow member of Sir Eustace’s social club. Bendix in turn shares the chocolates with his wife Joan. Then, both get terribly ill. Bendix survives, but his wife does not. Detective Inspector Moresby hasn’t been able to solve the case, because there are very few leads. He’s invited to present the facts to the Crimes Circle, which is a discussion group for those interested in crime. Each member of the club presents a possible solution to the crime, and Berkeley explains all at the end of the novel.
And then there’s R.W.R. McDonald’s The Nancys, winner of this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Crime Novel. In it, we are introduced to eleven-year-old Tippy Chan, who live in a small town on New Zealand’s South Island. She loves the Nancy Drew mysteries (yet another group of amateur sleuths) and wants to be a detective. She gets her chance when her mother takes a holiday and leaves her in the care of her Uncle Pike and his boyfriend Devon. Uncle Pike’s interested in sleuthing, too (those Nancy Drew mysteries Tippy has read were actually his). So, the three are intrigued when Tippy’s teacher is murdered, and her body left by a traffic light. Together, they form an amateur detection club they call the Nancys, and start trying to work out who the killer might be. It’s not an easy case, and it turns out to be more dangerous than any of them think. In the end, though, they find out who is responsible – and uncover a few other secrets, too.
There are, of course, other mysteries and series that involve groups/clubs of amateur sleuths. It can be an effective approach to telling a story if it’s done well. What’s more, stories like this can be fun. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jeff Richmond and Nell Benjamin’s Where Do You Belong?