If you’re kind enough to read this blog, then you know that I don’t usually continue a topic from one day into the next. That can get tiresome, so I generally avoid it. But as I was putting together my last post, it occurred to me that there are a lot of fictional sleuths who’ve served their country in the armed forces. The military/sleuthing connection makes sense if you think about it; there are certainly some similarities between what cops and other professional detectives do and what members of the military do. So I hope you’ll be kind enough to indulge me going on about this just a bit…
Agatha Christie’s Captain Arthur Hastings is a former member of the military, although he’s not a career soldier. We learn about his service in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, when he spends time at the home of his friend John Cavendish. In this novel, Hastings has been wounded in battle and has just spent a month in a convalescent home. Now he’s on a month’s leave and has been invited to spend it with the Cavendish family at their home Styles Court. Hastings discovers that his friend Hercule Poirot, who’s been displaced by the war, is staying in the nearby village of Styles St. Mary. When the family matriarch Emily Inglethorp is poisoned, Hastings asks Poirot to investigate the case. Poirot is only too glad to assist, since the victim was his benefactor.
Hasting’s war service is mentioned again in The Murder on the Links, in which he and Poirot investigate the stabbing death of Paul Renauld, a Canadian émigré to France. The story begins while Hastings is traveling on a train on business. The train passes through some of the World War I battlefields, and a young woman he meets makes mention of the war. Hastings tells her a bit about his service. He doesn’t expect to meet her again, but when he and Poirot begin to investigate the Renauld murder, he finds that there is a connection between his fellow passenger and the murder.
John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee is also a military veteran. The novels don’t spend a lot of time discussing his service, but it’s meant something to him. In The Lonely Silver Rain, for instance, he’s hired by Billy Ingraham, an old friend who’s made good, to find Ingraham’s stole boat. McGee finds the boat, but when he goes on board, he also finds three dead bodies, including that of the daughter of a Peruvian diplomat. McGee himself comes under suspicion, which puts his life in danger. So he’s going to have to find out who the murderer is, and that’s not much safer for him. It turns out that the boat theft and murders are related to “turf wars” between established Florida Mafiosos and a new generation of “drug barons,” and McGee isn’t safe from either of them. At one point, McGee is trying to get some information from one of the minor drug bosses, who insists on being paid. McGee goes to the bank where he has money stored in a safety-deposit box:
“I have it [the safety-deposit box] only because there are a few little items I would not care to have sunk or burned. Pictures of my mother and father and brother, all long gone. Birth certificate. Army discharge. Some yellowed clippings of my brief prowess as a tight end before they spoiled my knees. One theater ribbon, one Purple Heart, one Silver Star with citation for Sergeant McGee.”
This novel is the twenty-first and last of the Travis McGee novels, and what’s interesting is the major piece of McGee’s life that we discover in the story. As an aside, one wonders what MacDonald might have done with the character had he lived.
Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch has also seen military service. During the Vietnam war, he was a “tunnel rat” – one of a group of men who were sent in to destroy underground complexes that the Viet Cong has built. That service comes back to haunt him, you might say, in The Black Echo. In that novel, in which we meet Bosch for the first time, he’s just been demoted to the Hollywood Homicide Division of the L.A.P.D. When the body of William “Billy” Meadows is discovered in a drainpipe, it appears that it’s just one more junkie’s death. But it turns out that Bosch knew Meadows, who was a fellow “tunnel rat.” Bosch doesn’t believe that this is just a case of an overdose, and begins to investigate the case as murder. And as it turns out, he’s right. Meadows’ death is connected to a major bank robbery, and Bosch finds that more is at stake than just a haul of money.
And then there’s Ian Rankin’s John Rebus. Before he became a cop, Rebus served in the U.K.’s Special Air Service (SAS). That service background turns out to be very helpful to him in Knots and Crosses, in which he makes his debut. In that novel, a mysterious killer called The Strangler is kidnapping and killing young Edinburgh girls. There’s a media frenzy since the police can’t seem to catch the killer, but there are no really tangible clues. Meanwhile, Rebus has been receiving cryptic letters and even more cryptic knots as “calling cards.” He dismisses them as cranks, but there’s much more to them than that. When Rebus’ own daughter Samantha “Sam” is abducted by the Strangler, Rebus has no choice but to explore his past, from which he’s been running. With help from his hypnotist brother Michael, Rebus tells the story of his S.A.S. service, and it’s there that we find the key to catching The Strangler.
Julia Spencer-Fleming’s created a very interesting veteran-turned-sleuth. She is the Reverand Clare Fergusson. Fergusson was a combat helicopter pilot for the Eighteenth Airborne Corps who’s now an Episcopal priest in Miller’s Kill, New York. When we first meet her in In the Bleak Midwinter, Fergusson’s first outing, she is getting accustomed to the religious life, the small town in which she now lives, and the coming difficult winter weather. Then a baby is abandoned at the church, and his young mother is brutally murdered. Fergusson, who found the baby, works with Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne to find out who the killer is.
Zoë Sharp’s Charlotte “Charlie” Fox is also a veteran. She was in the British Army until one particular traumatic incident caused her discharge. In her first outing, Killer Instinct, Fox is teaching self-defence classes for women, many of whom have been residents at a local women’s shelter. One night, Fox and a friend are at karaoke night at the New Adelphi Club. Fox’s friend gets into a scuffle with another patron, Susie Hollings, and Fox gets involved in the fray. When Hollings is found dead not long afterwards, the police naturally are interested in Fox. Fox soon learns that Hollings was raped before she was killed, and that not many weeks earlier, another local girl was raped and nearly killed. Fox suspects a connection between the two incidents and the club, so when she gets the chance at a job at the club, she takes it. Then there’s another death and Fox soon finds herself the killer’s next target.
There are several other fictional sleuths such as James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux who have served in the military. There are lots of others, too. It’s an interesting connection that can add some depth and richness to their characters. And a sleuth’s past in the military can also add some interesting plot devices. Which of your favourite sleuths are veterans?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Journey’s Out of Harm’s Way.