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’.