The 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.