To celebrate the release of the gripping new police procedural Last One Alive, Karin Nordin discusses the allure of the detective duo and how she created her partners Nygaard and Jansson.
The Allure of the Detective Duo
Holmes and Watson. Salander and Blomkvist. Poe and Bradshaw.
When it comes to crime fiction, there’s nothing more satisfying than the complicated relationship of the dynamic duo. A good partnership can elevate two characters beyond the crimes they investigate. In many cases, it’s almost impossible to separate them. Someone says ‘Mulder’ and we automatically think ‘Scully.’ Rizzoli? Isles. Cagney? Lacey.
But what makes an enticing partnership?
When I first began writing Where Ravens Roost, my protagonist was very clear in my mind. Kjeld Nygaard was meant to be a familiar detective figure. He’s hardheaded, reckless, and insubordinate. Like most detective protagonists he has a challenging relationship with both his family and his colleagues. He continuously proves to be unreliable when it comes to his responsibilities as a parent. And, as expected, his romantic relationships are the definition of crash-and-burn.
Which meant his partner couldn’t be any of those things, right?
The character of Esme Jansson wasn’t initially in the first draft of Where Ravens Roost. She was briefly mentioned through incessant voicemail messages left on Kjeld’s phone and had one “on-screen” chapter when Kjeld finally called her back. That was it. She wasn’t supposed to be part of the larger story.
But her voice in those messages and in that single phone call was so strong I realized I was missing something very important by keeping her in the background. I didn’t know much about her because I hadn’t planned for her to be in the book, but I knew she wasn’t the kind of character who would let Kjeld go off on his own even if that’s what he wanted. Because Esme is also stubborn. And even though she plays by the rules better than he does, she’s very much driven by her emotions. She might keep those feelings close to her chest, to protect herself from getting hurt, but she still leads with them. And that makes her reckless, too. Especially when it comes to making decisions about her partner.
One of my favourite dynamics in the detective duo is that fine line between the professional and personal relationship. Kjeld and Esme have been partners in the Violent Crimes Division for four years. The cases they’ve worked on have forced them to confront aspects of themselves that they would have otherwise ignored. There’s an intense intimacy when it comes to facing those crimes and tragedies.
One of the reasons for Kjeld’s falling out with his ex was his inability to share the emotional demands of his job. Likewise, Esme has no one in her private life to talk to about the things she’s seen. And while she wants to be able to share her struggles with Kjeld, she knows that tiptoes a line of privacy they haven’t quite breached with each other. She cares about him. She wants him to open up to her. And Kjeld quietly wants that as well. But much of his personal trust was lost when his previous police partner turned out to be a serial killer. And that continues to be a huge barrier between them.
What makes them work well as a duo?
Esme definitely brings out Kjeld’s humorous side. They have a similar wit, although she’s quicker on the uptake than he is. Their back-and-forth banter adds a levity to the dark world they live in. Likewise, she challenges his hot temper with her logic. And, in turn, he reminds her that sometimes the rules need to be broken. There’s a lot of subtext in their friendship and more than a hint of anticipation that it could become something more. In Last One Alive that personal line is blurred even further when we learn more of Esme’s past. Kjeld’s emotional trauma has been a central crux in their relationship. But Esme is hiding some demons as well. And the secrets that haunt her could determine the future of their partnership.
So, what comes next?
As the author, there are some things I know from planning ahead. But a lot of times, like Esme unexpectedly weaving herself into the first novel, the characters make choices that surprise me. Regardless of what may happen in their private lives, the working relationship between Kjeld and Esme will be integral to their individual growth and development. They won’t always get along and they definitely won’t always see eye-to-eye. Esme will continue to chip away at Kjeld’s gruff exterior. Kjeld will remain a source of steadfast support when Esme’s resolve begins to waver. Because that’s what good partners do for each other. They bond in their similarities and they challenge each other in their differences. They continue to find a way forward until they’re so acutely intertwined that we, as readers, can’t imagine one existing without the other.
Until someone says ‘Nygaard?’ And the response is a resounding ‘Jansson.’