Fictional police officers and PIs come from all sorts of different backgrounds. Not all of them come from steady, stable homes where the law is respected (although there are plenty of fictional police detectives whose parents were also police officers). In fact, it’s interesting to see how many of them started out as juvenile delinquents, or close to it. In some ways, it doesn’t make sense for someone who’s used to flouting the law to enforce it.
But there is some logic to it, if you think about it. For some of these fictional characters, finding a place in law enforcement gives them a sense of purpose. For others, it gives them a pseudo-family. Or a chance to make things right. Whatever the reason, it can make for an interesting layer of character development to have someone make the choice to move from breaking the law to being ‘on the side of the angels.’
Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer is that sort of character. He was a troubled child from what seems to have been an abusive home (he mentions taking the strap away from his father in The Doomsters). As he got older, he became a petty thief. But a veteran cop befriended him, and Archer changed his perspective. He joined the Long Beach (California) Police but saw too much corruption there. Now, he’s a PI, who does what he can to make things right.
There’s another, slightly similar example in the case of David Whish-Wilson’s Frank Swann. As a young person, he committed his share of petty crime, and got into his share of trouble. He didn’t really have a sense of purpose until he met Marion Monroe. When they started dating, he got the chance to meet her father, George Monroe, who was a police officer. Monroe treated Swann with dignity and found ways to reach out to him. Ultimately, that helped lead Swann to choose a career as a police officer. He’s hardly perfect and doesn’t always do things ‘by the book.’ But he’s got a sense of purpose, and he’s developed a core of integrity.
Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone also had a difficult start in life. After the death of her parents in a car wreck, she went to live with her aunt. Aimless in high school, she became a delinquent. Still, she finished high school and tried community college. That wasn’t a success, though, and it wasn’t until she became a PI that Millhone found a sense of purpose. Fans of this series can tell you that she doesn’t always walk the proverbial straight and narrow. But her life has focus, and she’s ‘on the side of the angels’ now.
Carol O’Connell’s Kathy Mallory started out as a homeless child who’d fled from her native Louisiana to New York City. When she was eleven, NYPD detective Louis Markowitz caught her stealing. Instead of turning her over to the juvenile justice system, Markowitz took her in and raised her as his own. As they’ve gotten to know each other, he’s learned about her past, and it’s a dark one. In fact, she’s a nearly-feral ‘baby sociopath.’ But they’ve forged a bond, and Mallory respects her surrogate father. When Markowitz is killed in a line-of-duty incident, Mallory takes it upon herself to find his killer. Later, she enrolls in the police academy and begins a law enforcement career of her own. Her mentor (and Markowitz’ former partner) Sergeant Riker, does his best to help her. It’s not always successful, since Mallory still has plenty of ‘baggage.’ But she’s working at making a life on the right side of the law.
Jean-Claude Izzo’s Fabio Montale grew up in a not-very-nice part of Marseilles. He and his friends, Manu and Pierre ‘Ugo’ Ugolini, committed plenty of petty and sometimes more serious crimes. They probably would have continued this way, and even done worse things, but everything was changed by a tragedy. Montale left Marseilles and joined the military. In Total Chaos, he’s returned, and is now a police officer in the very area where he grew up. It’s not spoiling this trilogy to say that Montale gets fed up with a lot of what he sees on the police force, and that has a real impact on his own choices. But he’s made the choice not to get drawn into the criminal underworld.
These are only a few examples of fictional sleuths who started out as delinquents (or worse). And it’s an interesting question why they make the choice to enforce the laws they flouted. Each sleuth has a different pattern of reasons for that decision, and it adds to that sleuth’s character.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s Gee, Officer Krupke!