Your Old Road is Rapidly Agin’

In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock, Hercule Poirot investigates some mysterious thefts at a hostel for students. But it turns out that more is going on there than just some petty thefts, and Poirot and Inspector Sharpe end up solving more than one case of murder. At one point, Poirot is interviewing Colin McNabb, one of the students at the hostel. McNabb is a psychology student who believes he has the explanation for the thefts:

‘Poirot said meekly,
“My ideas are doubtless old-fashioned, but I am perfectly prepared to listen to you, Mr. McNabb.”’ 

In this case, Poirot has his own reasons for appearing to yield to what McNabb says, but the conversation reflects the way older ideas and people can make way for the new. In real life, older investigative techniques yield to new technologies (such as CCTV and DNA analysis). Younger people move up the proverbial ladder and take over as older people age and retire.

We see the same thing in crime fiction, too, especially in series, where characters’ stories are followed over time. Sometimes it goes smoothly, and sometimes…not so well. Either way, ‘passing the torch’ is an interesting approach to keeping a series fresh and reflecting the reality of what happens when people age and leave a profession.

Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veetern series begins with the inspector fully in charge of his investigative team. He listens to what others, including his subordinates, have to say. But in the end, he’s the one who leads the team and makes the final decisions. As the series goes on, Van Veeteren nears retirement. He knows he won’t be able to go on forever; and, in any case, he has the dream of opening his own bookshop. He wants his team to be prepared for life without him, so he grooms the members to develop the skills they’ll need. And, in The Unlucky Lottery (AKA Münster’s Fall/ Münster’s Case), Intendant Münster gets the chance to investigate a murder. It’s a complex case, and Münster does consult his former boss, but it’s a move away from Van Veeteren at the helm. For his part, Van Veeteren does provide some good advice, but he doesn’t get involved in the actual investigation.

Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander leads the team of police investigators in Ystad. At the beginning of the series, he is in charge of the team, and is ultimately responsible for them. As the years go by, and Wallander gets closer to retirement, things change. They change even more in The Troubled Man. In the meantime, though, Wallander’s daughter, Linda, has decided to become a police detective like her father. She goes through the police academy and prepares to join the Ystad police force. In Before the Frost, she’s getting ready to start her new job when a friend of hers goes missing, and she ends up drawn into that case. In the meantime, Wallander is working a case of his own, and it turns out the two cases are related. In this novel, it’s a matter of a father preparing for his daughter to step in. It is said that Mankell had intended Before the Frost to be a short series, but stopped after only one novel when Johanna Sällström, who played Linda on the Swedish TV series, tragically committed suicide. It would have been interesting to see Linda grow as a detective.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch has been a police detective for a long time. He’s had various placements, as fans know, and, as we learn in The Drop, isn’t really eager to retire. It can’t be denied that he’s getting older, though, and doesn’t have the stamina he once did. Still, he’s not quite ready to be ‘shelved’ yet, and in a few novels, he works with younger officers to try to help them. In 2017’s The Late Show, Connelly introduced a new protagonist, Renée Ballard, who is a young LAPD cop. She’s got her own issues, and she’s got things to learn. But Bosch sees that she’s driven and that she’s going to be a very good detective. Starting with the second Renée Ballard novel, Dark Sacred Night, Bosch works with Ballard and mentors her. In some ways, the two are quite different. But they are both dedicated cops with complicated histories, and they make a formidable team.

Making way for ‘new blood’ doesn’t always go as smoothly as one might hope, though. For instance, Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town takes place in 1974 Atlanta. It’s a time when the police force is overwhelmingly male. Certainly, it’s male-dominated, and women are relegated to (at most) second class status. It’s even worse for non-white police. In this environment, there’s every reason to suspect that Maggie Lawson and Kate Murphy won’t make it as police detectives. Yet, they are determined, and they soon get drawn into a series of killings of other cops. One of the characters is Gail Patterson, one of the first female officers on the Atlanta force. At one point, Kate and Maggie work with Gail to locate a local sex worker they think may have information on the case they’re working. In a sense, Gail mentors them. She has a lot of ‘street smarts’ that she shares with them. But she’s got her own issues, especially in the sexist, racist culture in which she works. So, she doesn’t support the young detectives in the way a real mentor might, or try to spare them what she went through to be accepted. It would be interesting, actually, to revisit these characters (Cop Town is a standalone) and see if they become mentors for other young detectives when the time comes.

Getting ready to step aside for a new generation isn’t always easy. But it’s a natural part of getting older in just about every profession. And it’s interesting to see how it works in crime fiction.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’.



12 thoughts on “Your Old Road is Rapidly Agin’

  1. Oh, that’s interesting, Margot. I was always intrigued by the way Christie managed to weave some modern ideas and settings into her later stories, although I did feel she was a little out of her comfort zone at times. And I’m very glad she didn’t have to try to deal with modern technological detective elements!


    1. I agree with you, KBR, about modern technology! I think Christie would have had a difficult time with it all, although she was certainly intelligent enough to understand its purpose. That said, though, I’ve thought more than once that she was ahead of her time on some of the ideas she included in her stories. As you say, her reach exceeded her grasp here and there, but I always gave her credit for trying. She wasn’t one to follow an old formula just because ‘everybody was doing it!’

      Liked by 1 person

  2. E.C.R. Lorac’s series character Macdonald too is retired by the end of the series and trying to build up a life as a farmer. We see the struggles that he undergoes.


  3. That’s sad about the actress, Margot. How awful for those that were close to her. I don’t think I’ve read anything from Mankell for far too long.


    1. I thought her death was tragic, too, Col. And you’re right; her friends and family must have been devastated. As for Mankell, I hope you get the chance to get back to his work; there are some very good stories in that series.


  4. I have read nearly all of the Poirot novels, but three of those authors I need to read more by: Håkan Nesser, Henning Mankell, and Michael Connelly. For each of them I have only read one or two books.


    1. Nesser, Mankell, and Connelly are all well worth reading, Tracy, when you get the chance. The books are different styles, but all of them, I think, tell engaging stories and have interesting characters.


  5. That’s a tragic story about the actress who played Linda. I’m rather glad he chose not to continue the short series he’d been planning but it shows how much we accept actors as a character and find it hard to think of others filling the role. I was also thinking that in the old days, ‘tecs tended not to age, and was wondering if it’s the insertion of a family life for them that ties modern detectives much more to a realistic timeline. When there are children especially it makes it obvious if a detective isn’t aging in real time, so to speak.


    1. I agree, FictionFan; it really is tragic about that suicide, and it’s a good thing that the series didn’t go forward. I think it shows some respect. You’ve got a point, too, that we often associate actor with character. Certainly that happened with John Thaw and Inspector Morse. That’s a well-taken point about the differences between contemporary crime novels and vintage ones. Now that we follow many sleuths’ personal as well as professional lives, it’s harder for them not to really age. They’ve got children and sometimes grandchildren, and they grow up…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. A series has been going a long time when the sleuth “sort of” retires from the chase. Both Wallander and Bosch transition but they are not retired. I did think in The Dark Hours that Bosch is actually edging into a real retirement. It is possible for a sleuth to gracefully age and retire but remain a sleuth. Joanne Kilbourn Shreeve of the mysteries written by Gail Bowen has raised children, completed a career as a university professor and entered a successful second marriage while still sleuthing away.


    1. I like your examples of the way Wallander and Bosch ‘sort of’ retire. And it does make me wonder whether Bosch will ever actually retire. Yet, as you say, both transition, and both make way for younger detectives. I think it’s done effectively. As you say, there are sleuths (and Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is an excellent example!) who retire from their professions, but still sleuth. I think authors of long-running series have to make some choices when it comes to what will happen to their sleuth as that person ages.


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