Crime-Solving Couples of Yesteryear

In kicking off an article about amateur detectives of yore, most of whom just happen to be married, the obvious opener would a play on the phrase “’til death do us part.” Since I’m not clever enough to come up with anything I’ll invite the reader to insert their own. In any event, here are a few great couples from way on back. Some are best known for their appearances in fiction while others are remembered for their time spent on the big screen.

Tommy & Tuppence: Chronologically speaking I suppose you’d have to start this list with Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence (Thomas and Prudence Beresford), though perhaps there were other crime-solving couples who predated them. Starting with The Secret Adversary in 1922 (supposedly the first Christie work to be filmed, six years later), they appeared in a total of five novels and a story collection over the next half century. Unlike so many ageless fictional series characters they actually grew older in these successive appearances.

Nick & Nora Charles: One of the great crime-solving couples of all time, Nick and Nora Charles got their start in a 1934 novel by Dashiell Hammett, which made its way to the big screen the same year. The duo were portrayed by William Powell and Myrna Loy (above), who came back for five more installments, the last of which appeared in 1947. Various radio, TV, and stage adaptations followed and a remake starring Johnny Depp has been rumored for a while now.

Powell fans who can’t get enough of his Nick Charles persona would be advised to seek out The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936), in which Mr. Bradford (Powell) teams up with his ex-wife (Jean Arthur) to solve a murder. Two years before The Thin Man, in 1932, Powell starred as a character known as The Robber and Kay Francis as his love interest in Jewel Robbery, a comic crime caper that was something of a harbinger of things to come.

Hildegarde Withers & Oscar Piper: I like Nick and Nora as much as the next guy but for my money one of the great crime-solving couples was that of Hildegarde Withers and Oscar Piper. They appeared in a bunch of books by Stuart Palmer and made it to the big screen in a total of six films between 1932 and 1937. The first three of these, which starred Edna May Oliver as the aging schoolteacher who puts up with no nonsense from anyone, are arguably the best. James Gleason played the role of Piper in all six installments and though Withers never wasted an opportunity to let the slightly dim-witted police inspector have it, the pair eventually become an item.

Melsa Manton & Peter Ames: Only the most knowledgeable film buffs are likely to recognize those names, but the actors who portrayed them are considerably more well-known. Henry Fonda played newspaper editor Ames while Barbara Stanwyck took on the role of the debutante who works with him (and marries him) and a number of her hoity-toity friends to solve crimes.

Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice as Garda and Joel Sloane in Fast Company
Garda & Joel Sloane: Was the resemblance to Nick and Nora intentional? Probably, given that the Sloanes first hit the big screen just four years after The Thin Man. The rare book dealers cracked cases in a trio of movies that came out in 1938 and 1939—Fast Company, Fast and Loose, and Fast and Furious. Interestingly enough, a different pair of actors played the main roles in each movie. I haven’t seen the last one but if you’re only going to watch one of the others, go with Fast Company, which finds Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice in fine form.

Douglas was treading the same ground, also in 1938, when he stared with Joan Blondell in There’s Always A Woman. He’s Bill Reardon, a private detective, and she’s Sally Reardon, who ends up taking on one of his cases, with both of them trying to solve it independently. Sounds good, to be sure, but for me it lacked the zing of Fast Company.

Pam & Jerry North: How about a mystery-solving married couple written by a married couple? There may be others but one of the best known are probably Mr. and Mrs. North, who appeared in 26 books by Frances and Richard Lockridge. The upscale amateur detectives only made their way to the big screen once but also appeared in a number of radio and TV series and on Broadway.

William I. Lengeman III is a freelance journalist with a fondness for gourmet tea and traditional mysteries. He writes about the former at Tea Guy Speaks and the latter at Traditional Mysteries.

Read all of William I. Lengeman III’s posts for Criminal Element.


  1. Tatiana deCarillion

    Sad to say I’ve read none of these books, save the Tommy and Tuppence stories, though several of the films are some of my faves!

    I picked up The Thin Man boxed set of DVDS over Tday weekend and have watched all the films while off for winter break. These have always been some of my fave films for rewatching, as they never fail to crack me up. Terrific chemistry abounds, along with great costuming.

    I’ve seen The Penguin Pool Murder, but that’s the only story in the series that is familiar to me.

  2. Scott Adlerberg

    Another couple: they may be a a bit of a stretch but what about amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey and mystery writer Harriet Vane, from the Dorothy L. Sayers books? In STRONG POISON Wimsey clears Vane when she is on trial for poisoning her lover. He proposes marriage and even though she doesn’t immediately accept they work together in solving crimes in a couple of books, including GAUDY NIGHT, where she finally returns his love. In their last book together, BUSMAN’S HONEYMOON, they do actually marry and continue working together as a crime solving team. Good books all about a brilliant and eccentric couple by one of the top mystery writers from the Golden Era.

  3. Carmen Pinzon

    @ScottA – you beat me to it!

  4. Joe Guglielmelli

    One more faux Nick & Nora movie is Star of Midnight with William Powell as a sharp NYC lawyer and Ginger Rogers as his partner in crime. Not as good as The Ex-Mrs Bradford as far as Thin Man pastiches go but fun.

    I’ve seen all 3 of the Sloan films, the second stars Robert Montgomery & Rosalind Russell and is entertaining story about a Shakespeare (Montgomery also played Lord Peter in a obscure MGM film based on Busman’s Holiday as Peter & Harriet honeymoon. The third, I think, starred Ann Southern & Franchot Tone but didn’t involve rare books but rather murder at a a beauty pagent not unlike Miss America.

    Another series with male & female partners is the Torchy Blaine series with a girl reporter and her homicide detective boyfriend. Thirties tough girl Glenda Farrell and character actor Barton MacLaine (a Bogart foil in Falcon, Sierra Madre & High Sierra, to name a few). Can’t vouch for whole series but the one I saw had some moments even if the mystery was not the strongest.

    Shame Stanwyck didn’t do more films like Mad Miss Manton. She would have been a great wisegal detective. Only other I can think of is Lady of Burlesque but no male partner for her.

  5. Tatiana deCarillion

    @Joe, Torchy Blaine films are playing on TCM, on Saturday mornings, for the last couple of weeks, and I believe they will continue in the coming weeks. I just got the new schedule for January, so I’ll have to check that. If so, I’ll be setting the DVR to record, as I’m unfamiliar with them. Thanks for the suggestion!

  6. Camille LaGuire

    I just saw The Penguin Pool Murders for the first time the other day (It’s on YouTube at the moment, though the sound is terrible). A lot of fun. I very much enjoyed the chemistry.

    My favorites, though are Pam and Jerry North. What’s interesting about them is that they are not really the ultimate sleuths — their detective friend is, and they are mostly armchair helpers. I am waiting and waiting for whoever holds the rights to their books to get these books rereleased in ebook form soon.

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