It’s interesting when you think about it how often crime fiction features a character who’s left the police force or who does so in the course of a novel. It’s not surprising really. Being a police officer is one of the most stressful jobs that there is. It’s very hard on one’s physical and mental health, to say nothing of one’s home life. And even if it weren’t, at some point most people retire. It’s no different really for cops. Of course, really dedicated cops do what they do because they want to catch the “bad guys” or they want justice for victims. So even after they leave the force they can’t stop thinking like cops. But even those folks sometimes leave the force for one or another reason.
Some police officers leave the force because they retire. That’s the reason for which Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot left the Belgian police force. And it’s interesting because there isn’t a great deal of discussion about the cases he worked while he was on the force. Christie’s short story The Chocolate Box is a retrospective on a case of murder that Poirot investigated while on the force. He regards it as one of his failures, but it’s still an interesting case. And here and there throughout the series there are mentions of other cases, including a forgery case during which he seems to have meet Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp. Other than that though, Poirot seems to be content with leaving his cop past behind. Not of course that that means he stops sleuthing…
Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren also leaves the force more or less because of retirement. In The Inspector and Silence, he and his team are investigating the rape and murder of Clarissa Heerenmacht, who was a member of a religious group calling itself Pure Life. Later the police discover that another group member Katarina Schwartz disappeared several days earlier and she, too, was raped and murdered. The only real clues the team has to these murders is information from an anonymous woman who seems to know a lot more about the group and the young girls than she’s saying. While the team is investigating these crimes Van Veeteren is making an important decision. He’s had a long career with the police and is considering whether he’s ready to leave his position and take ownership in a local bookshop or whether he’ll stay on the force. In the end, as we learn here and in Münster’s Case (AKA The Unlucky Lottery), he chooses the bookshop. But that doesn’t mean he stops sleuthing either.
Retirement is the reason Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn leaves the Navajo Tribal Police. He’s had a long history of successes that have in part earned him the nickname The Legendary Lieutenant. But between Sacred Clowns and The Fallen Man, Leaphorn retires,
“Finally. After about a century.”
Then, the body of a climber who’s been dead for over a decade is discovered. Leaphorn thinks he may know who the dead man was as this case may be connected with a “cold” case he investigated and thought was an accident. The remains turn out to belong to Harold Breedlove, who disappeared shortly after inheriting his family’s wealth. Breedlove’s family hires Leaphorn to find out what really happened to the climber and Leaphorn works with Acting Lieutenant Jim Chee to solve that case. He also discovers that retirement is not for him and finds his own way to keep being an investigator.
And of course, fans of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus will know that he retires at the end of Exit Music. From what I understand though, Rebus will make a return at the end of this year in Standing in Another Man’s Grave. I’ll be very interested to see what he’s been doing since he retired.
Retirement isn’t the only reason that fictional sleuths leave the police force. For instance Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone was a cop for two years, but left the force because she didn’t like,
“Working with a leash around your neck,”
as former colleague Lieutenant Con Dolan tells her in A is For Alibi. Millhone finds private investigation a lot more amenable; she can make her own hours, has fewer restrictions and policy requirements and is more “her own boss.”
My own Joel Williams is also a former cop. His decision to leave the force has a lot more to do with the toll it takes on one’s personal life and his interest in teaching than anything else. As he puts it,
“One of the best things about not being a cop was not having to call your wife and tell her you had no idea when you’d be home.”
Not, of course, that academia is nearly as predictable as a lot of people think it is…
Some fictional cops leave the force because they’re simply fed up with it. That’s what happens to Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch in Lost Light. Bosch is tired of all of the corruption and politics of the L.A.P.D. so he decides to take early retirement. Then he uncovers a cold case he recognises: the four-year-old death of Angella Barton, whose body was found in the vestibule of her apartment building. Bosch had actually been assigned the case, but was pulled off it. Now he finds that it wasn’t satisfactorily solved, so he determines to re-open it. And in the end, after a stint as a private investigator, he gets back into regular duty as an L.A.P.D. cop. It’ll be very interesting to see what happens to him when the retirement-age policy catches up with Bosch.
Y.A. Erskine’s Jo Weston, whom we meet in The Brotherhood, has also left the police force. In her case it’s the Hobart, Tasmania police force. During her time on the force Weston came to very much appreciate the camaraderie and sense of belonging she felt. But when her lover John White returned to his wife and children, she ended their relationship and didn’t feel she could remain on the force at such close quarters with White. Now Weston works behind the scenes at the British Library and has come to love her life in London. When she gets word that John White has been murdered, she does feel a sense of loss, but at the same time she feels no great desire to return to investigating. She’s actually one of the few fictional former cops I’ve read about (but please put me right if I’m wrong) without any lingering desire to solve cases.
Considering how difficult the job is it’s not at all surprising that there are so many former cops both in real life and in crime fiction. What I find fascinating is how many of them find ways to keep their hand in so to speak even after they’ve left the force.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.