Tryin’ to Make a New Start*

Reformed CriminalsThe police, of course, are supposed to uphold the law. And most real and fictional police try to do just that. That’s why it’s interesting to see how many PIs and police have actually been on the other side of the cuffs, so to speak. They may have different reasons for ‘switching teams,’ but they do it; and their experiences can give them a unique insight into the way criminals think. They’ve been there. And they can use that hard-won knowledge.

The idea of the reformed criminal becoming a police officer or PI has a long history. For instance, Émile Gaboriau’s L’Affaire Lerouge (The Widow Lerouge), which was told in serial form in 1864 (put together as a novel in 1900) features Monsieur Lecoq, a reformed criminal who has become a police investigator. Interestingly enough, Lecoq is modeled on a real-life police investigator, Eugène Vidocq, founder of the Sûreté. Like Lecoq, Vidocq was a criminal who turned informant, then became a police officer. He’s regarded by many as the founder of modern criminology. And it seems he was in a good position to know his field…

G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown is often assisted by private enquiry agent Hercule Flambeau. They call on each other when one or the other has a particularly difficult or interesting case. But as fans of these stories know, Flambeau wasn’t always on the right side of the law. When we first meet him in the short story The Blue Cross, he’s a notorious thief who’s on his way to London to steal a valuable religious artifact. The French police are after him, but Father Brown proves more than a match for both. And as the Father Brown stories continue, Flambeau proves to be just as skilled at working for ‘the good guys’ as he is at stealing. It’s interesting, too, to see the influence Father Brown has on Flambeau. He doesn’t suddenly become an avid churchgoer, or begin observing religious traditions regularly. But he does re-think his purpose, and it’s not hard to see Father Brown’s role in that process.

Carol O’Connell’s Kathy Mallory also has what used to be called a ‘checkered past.’ At six, she witnessed her mother’s murder and ended up running off from her native Louisiana to New York, where she lived on the streets for a time. Then, she was caught trying to steal by New York City police detective Louis Markowitz. Mallory, as she’s usually called, faced the not-very-optimistic prospect of juvenile detention, foster homes, and possibly worse. But Markowitz took her in instead, and became her foster father. In Mallory’s Oracle, Mallory has become a police officer herself, and is hoping to make some sort of decent life. Then, her adoptive father is murdered in the course of an investigation. Mallory determines to find out who the killer is, and works with Markowitz’ partner Riker to learn the truth. Readers of this series know that Mallory isn’t what you’d call a ‘typical’ police officer. Her history still has a profound impact on her.

There’s also David Whish-Wilson’s Frank Swann. As a teenager and young adult, he did his share of lawbreaking. He was influenced in another direction, though, by his wife Marion’s father George Monroe. When he and Marion were dating, Swann had the opportunity to spend some time with her father, and
‘…George Monroe saw something in him that nobody else had, even encouraged him to join the force. In contrast with his stepfather, Monroe was a man Swann could admire.’

Under Monroe’s influence, Swann decided to join the police force. In Line of Sight and Zero at the Bone, we see that he’s a good cop, too. He’s not afraid to get tough if he has to, and he doesn’t always exactly follow the policy book. But he’s on the honest side of the law.

And then there’s Peter May’s Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod. When we first meet him in The Blackhouse, he is a police officer who lives and works in Edinburgh. He is seconded to the Isle of Lewis to help investigate the murder of Angel Macritchie, whose death closely resembles another case that Macleod’s been working. Macleod’s originally from Lewis, so for him, this case represents a sort of homecoming, ‘though not one he would have chosen. As the novel goes on, we learn that this case will force Macleod to face his own past. And it’s not an entirely happy one. Before becoming a police officer, Macleod wasn’t exactly a model child. He got into trouble more than once. For him, joining the police force was a way to escape the mistakes he’d made and start over. So it’s hard for him to return. And it’s interesting to see how he’s viewed once everyone on Lewis knows he’s with the force. It’s also interesting to see how he comes to view himself.

Law enforcement is a lifelong career goal for some people. But for others, it becomes a way to do something more productive with their lives than crime. And sometimes it works out quite well.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Rodgers’ Heartbreaker.


Filed under Émile Gaboriau, Carol O'Connell, David Whish-Wilson, G.K. Chesterton, Peter May

18 responses to “Tryin’ to Make a New Start*

  1. Interesting topic. The first example that sprung to my mind is The Saint Simon Templar – I’m not sure what his deal was before he was on the side of the angels but I’m pretty sure that some of the earlier books implied that he used to be a burglar and he definitely had the skills and contacts of a criminal.
    Rob Smith

    • That’s a really good example, Petectives! Right you are, too, that Templar used to be a thief before he moved to the right side of the law. I’m glad you brought that up, and thanks for the kind words.

  2. Sharon Bolton’s Lacey Flint also had a chequered past, living rough for part of her childhood, and carrying some of that damage into her adult years. And we often see her visiting prison, where (trying to avoid spoilers) she is close to someone whose actions have also given her an insight into life on the other side of the tracks…

    • Oh, that’s quite true, FictionFan, and something I’d totally forgotten when I put this post together. Thanks for filling in the gap. And it’s interesting to see how that past impacts characters now, even those who have been on the ‘straight and narrow’ for a long time.

  3. I have not read any of these series. They all sound good.

  4. Col

    I’m enjoying my first taste of Frank Swann – so far so good!

  5. There’s an English phrase: poacher turned gamekeeper. Are you familiar with it? I’m sure you could work out what it means – exactly what you describe here.

  6. And I have noticed a new trend cops/police are turning to crime fiction writing now…:)

  7. Keishon

    I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure of reading this type of book. I thought wrong in that if you had a criminal history/past you couldn’t be a police officer. Guess it all depends on the seriousness of the crimes, etc. I have no clue. In fiction, PI would be more believable or a bounty hunter for me. Which brings me to a side thought: how many books feature bounty hunters these days? Besides Stephanie Plum 😉

    • Oh, now you’ve got my brain ticking, Keishon! Bounty hunters in crime fiction – what a great topic. Thanks 🙂
      As to getting onto the police force after having committed a crime, I honestly don’t know how that works in real life. I suppose, as you say, that it would depend on a lot of things (e.g. the particular police force policies, the seriousness of the crime, how long ago it was). You’re probably right that, in real life, it’d be easier to get your PI license. Interesting point.

  8. The notion of a criminal changing his ways also brings to mind the cases – fictional and otherwise – of those Wild West gunslingers and outlaws who later reformed and became marshalls.
    Then there’s the cases where the criminal is reformed artificially, as it were, from one medium to another, a case in point being the character of Harry Lime, a bad guy in the movie but later, more or less a good guy in the TV and radio series.

    • Now, that’s an interesting point, Bryan. There are characters such as Lime who are presented different ways depending on the medium. I’ve seen that in book-to-film adaptations, too. And you’re right: when you read Westerns, you do see the former ‘bad guy’ who’s now a marshall or sheriff. Usually such characters don’t say much about their pasts, but you can tell they haven’t been exactly ‘choirboys.’

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