Crime-fictional sleuths get into the business for any number of reasons. And one of those reasons is that their father or mother was a detective. You might say these sleuths are legacies to their parents.
Sometimes that’s a good thing. It can give a detective an ‘in’ (e.g. ‘Oh, yeah, of course. Knew your dad.’). Sometimes it can be a burden, especially when the sleuth makes a mistake, or if the parent is or was under a cloud of suspicion. Either way, that connection to the past can add an interesting layer of character development. It can add tension to a plot, too.
In Agatha Christie’s The Clocks, we are introduced to Special Agent Colin Lamb. As the story begins, he’s searching for clues to the death of a colleague. Apparently, the dead man had uncovered evidence of a spy ring but was killed before he could name names. The clues that Lamb does have lead him to Wilbraham Crescent, a development in the town of Crowdean. Lamb’s trying to find the address he wants when a young woman runs out of one of the houses screaming. Lamb settles her as best he can, and then goes into the house. There, he finds the body of an unidentified man. He alerts the police, and inspector Richard Hardcastle takes the case. It’s an intriguing mystery, and Lamb thinks it might interest his father’s friend, Hercule Poirot. Poirot is, indeed interested – more than he admits at first – and he and Lamb work with Hardcastle to find out who the victim was and who killed him. It’s clear that Poirot has an affection for Lamb’s father, and it’s interesting to see that aspect of Lamb’s past as the story goes on.
In James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, we are introduced to Edmund ‘Ed’ Exley. He’s become a member of the LAPD mostly because of the influence of his father, the beloved and revered Preston Exley. It’s Exley Senior’s dream that his son will rise to the very top of the LAPD, and he does everything he can, including pushing and prodding his son, to make that happen. It’s a real challenge for Exley Junior, as everyone in the police department knows his father. Still, he aims to please, and does work to ‘get to ahead.’ On Christmas Day, 1951, seven civilians are brutally attacked by members of the police department. A groundswell of public outrage forces an internal investigation, and that has consequences. Two years later, there’s another tragedy, this time a late-night shooting at the Nite Owl diner. As it turns out, these two incidents are related, and Ed Exley’s drawn into both. As the story goes on, we see how Exley is impacted by having a father who’s well-known in the business.
Above Suspicion is the first of Lynda La Plante’s novels to feature Anna Travis. In the novel, she’s just been promoted to the rank of Detective Sergeant and has applied to join the Murder Squad at Queen’s Park, London. Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) James Langton is looking for the right new person on the Murder Squad, and Travis’ résumé is impressive. It doesn’t hurt matters that Langton knew Travis’ father, Jack, who had a very good reputation on the police force. Travis misses her father, so she appreciates that Langton mentions him when they first meet. There’s not much time for sentimentality, though, because the Murder Squad has a difficult case on their hands. The body of seventeen-year-old Melissa Stephens has been discovered. In many ways, her murder resembles that of six other ‘cold case’ murders the team has. So, it could be the same killer. But there are some important differences. For one thing, the other victims were middle-aged, but Melissa was in her teens. For another, the other victims were sex workers, and Melissa wasn’t. Still, Langton believes they’re dealing with the same person. The team settles on a suspect, Alan Daniels. But that’s going to be a big problem. Daniels is a beloved television star who’s poised for real success in films. What’s more, he’s very wealthy and ‘connected,’ so the team will have to have convincing evidence if they’re to pursue the case. And there’s a possibility that they’re wrong, and the killer is someone else. Throughout the novel, we see the impact on Travis of being the daughter of a well-known and well-regarded police detective.
Cara Black’s Aimée Leduc inherited her Paris detective agency from her father. She grew up around his business, and, tragically, witnessed his murder. Since then, she and her business partner, René Friant, have run Leduc Detective together. In the first novel in this series, Murder in the Marais, Leduc and Friant get a case because of a connection to Leduc’s father. Soli Hecht visits the agency, saying that he needs Leduc’s help. At first, she refuses, but then he says,
‘‘I knew your father. An honorable man. He told me to come to you if I needed help.’’
That gives Leduc pause, and she hears Hecht out. It seems he wants her to decrypt a particular computer code and give the information she gets to a woman named Lili Stein. Leduc agrees, but by the time she finishes, Lili Stein has been murdered. Now, she gets drawn into a case of murder that is connected to another, long-ago murder.
There’s an interesting twist on this dynamic in Martin Edwards’ Lake District Series. That series features Hannah Scarlett, who leads the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. Earlier in her career, she was mentored by Ben Kind, and they worked together on more than one case. His son, Daniel, has become an Oxford historian who’s taken a cottage in the Lake District. He knows Scarlett, because of the connection with his father, and she’s able to shed some light on his father’s professional career. Each in a slightly different way, Scarlett and Kind work together as she investigates cases.
Being a sort of legacy can be a challenge in real life. In fiction, though, it can add an interesting layer to a character. It can also add a solid plot point or point of suspense.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dan Fogelberg’s Leader of the Band.