Police officers see and learn a lot over the course of their careers. So when they retire, they’re often treasure troves of information about different cases and often, about the history of an area. Their perspectives can be helpful and certainly they can add richness to a crime novel. When retired cops are consulted, they can give the fictional sleuth a lot of insight and, provided they are well-drawn, can be really interesting characters in and of themselves. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of more than I ever could.
Fans of Agatha Christie will know that Hercule Poirot works with Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence on more than one case. By the time of Hallowe’en Party, Spence has retired to the village of Woodleigh Common, where he lives with his sister Elspeth. Poirot knows the value of Spence’s experience and wisdom. So he pays Spence a visit when a village girl, thirteen-year-old Joyce Reynolds, is murdered during a party. On the afternoon of her death, Joyce boasted that she’d seen a murder, but wouldn’t give any details about it. The fact that she’s now dead leads Poirot to believe that she might have seen something. So he asks Spence about the history of the area, and Spence is able to give him some valuable input. And in fact, Joyce’s murder has everything to do with past history and past crime.
In Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin, DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper investigate when the remains of two women are found on the property of Pity Wood Farm in the Peak District. The farm was owned for many years by brothers Derek and Raymond Sutton. Derek has died but his brother is still alive and living in a care home. The police interview him, but he can’t add much to their investigation, as he sold Pity Wood Farm before the bodies were buried there. The current owner is Manchester attorney Aaron Goodwin, but he bought the land for development, and has no connection to it or to the area. While the Suttons and Goodwin aren’t completely crossed off the suspect list, Fry and Cooper do see that they’ll need to look into the history of Pity Wood Farm and the nearby village of Rakedale. They soon discover though that Rakedale is a very insular community. No-one seems willing to talk to outsiders, and certainly not about any of the local ‘dirty laundry.’ But there is one person who’s lived there a long time, and who may be able to help. He is ex-PC David Palfreyman, who was the local bobby for thirty years before he retired. Cooper and Fry pay Palfreyman some visits, and it’s interesting to see what his perspective adds to the story. He gives them some background information on the Sutton family and about Rakesdale, and it’s clear that as they talk, he enjoys being part of an investigation again and that he’s missed his ‘police’ role.
Jan Costin Wagner’s Silence features detective Antsi Ketola. After years with the Turku police, Ketola has retired and is just beginning the next phase of his life. But he is still obsessed with one case that he never solved. In 1974, Pia Lehtinen disappeared and later was found in a field, raped and murdered. Ketola followed all the leads, but was never able to catch the criminal. A new case comes up when Sinikka Vehkasalo rides her bicycle to volleyball practice one day and never makes it. Her bicycle is later found, covered in blood and with the handlebars twisted round, in exactly the spot where Pia Lehtinen’s body was found. Inspector Kimmo Joentaa soon suspects that the same killer is responsible for both murders, so he decides to seek Ketola’s help in finding out who killed these two girls and why. And it turns out that Ketola’s knowledge of the old case and the area are very helpful in getting to the truth.
Reginald Hill’s novella One Small Step takes place in the future (well, it was the future when Hill wrote it in 1990). In this story, Superintendent Andy Dalziel has retired, and Peter Pascoe is now the Commissioner of the EuroFed Police. An international team of scientists and astronauts is conducting research on the moon, when one of them, a French astronaut, is murdered. Pascoe takes charge of the investigation and benefits greatly from the input and help he gets from Dalziel. This may not be regarded as Hill’s finest work, but it’s an interesting look at how he imagined the future might be.
Fans of Håkan Nesser will know that at the beginning of his Maardam series, Inspector Van Veeteren is a homicide detective who leads the investigating team. But after decades on the force, he has plans to move on with his life. In the course of the series, he leaves the force and becomes part owner of an antique bookshop. He enjoys his new life, but he still misses solving investigation puzzles. And for their parts, his former team-mates miss working with him and getting the benefit of his experience and his skill at detection. So in stories such as The Unlucky Lottery and The Weeping Girl, his former colleagues informally consult with him on their cases. In the former, Intendant Münster taps Van Veeteren’s wisdom as he solves the murder of retiree who’d just won a lottery. In the latter, Inspecter Ewa Moreno gets involved in the investigation when eighteen-year-old Mikaela Lijphart disappears. Moreno met the girl once and hasn’t been able to forget her. She finds that Makaela’s disappearance is connected with the disappearance of her father and with two murders.
Wendy James’ The Lost Girls concerns two murders that took place in 1978. One is the murder of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan. The other is the murder of sixteen year-old Kelly McIvor. The police investigated both deaths, but were never able to solve them. Now, journalist Erin Fury is making a documentary on the effect of murders on the victims’ families. As part of the film, she wants to interview Angela’s family members. Her parents are no longer alive, but her cousins Jane Tait and Jane’s brother Mick Griffin are. So are Jane and Mick’s parents Doug and Barbara Griffin. Doug is a retired police officer who could likely shed a great deal of light on the case and Erin wants very much to interview him. The problem is that he’s been diagnosed with possible dementia. He’s not spoken in a very long time, and seems to be losing his connection to the outside world. So he’s now living in a care home and there’s very little likelihood that Erin will be able to interview him. She finds her own way to gain access to him though, and we learn a surprising amount from what he has to say.
And that’s the thing about retired cops. They’ve seen a lot and been through a lot. They may be ‘straight arrows’ or ‘bent,’ and they may be willing or unwilling to talk about old cases. But they all provide a fascinating perspective on policing, and they often can give some very good insight and advice. Which retired police characters have stayed with you?
This post is dedicated to the memory of Warren Clarke, who brought Superintendent Andy Dalziel to life on the small screen. He will be much missed.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Keeping the Faith.