Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Roll With the Changes*

A survey study that I read suggests that the average person has five careers in his or her lifetime. Of course, averages don't necessarily tell much about one person. But with many people living longer and being more mobile, it's not surprising to find that a lot of people don't stay with the same career throughout their entire lives. There's also the fact that for many people, there is nothing mandatory about retirement; they' re interested in life and want to find ways to continue to be creative and productive long after the age of sixty-five. So a lot of second (or third, or fourth….) careers begin after retirement. People who've had more than one career bring an interesting perspective to what they do. That's why, for instance, crime fiction novels written by former law enforcement professionals, attorneys or forensics professionals can be really informative. We also see this tendency for people to have more than one career, even after retirement, in crime fiction and that varied background can really make a sleuth an interesting person.

Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, for instance, has had more than one career. He was a member of the Belgian police force during a time when most people had one career throughout their lives. World War I forced him to flee to England where he had to start his life over. In
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, we find that he decided to retire from being a police detective and live a quiet country life. However, when wealthy retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study one night, Poirot is called back into action, so to speak. Ackroyd's niece Flora begs Poirot to find out who really killed Ackroyd and clear her fiancé Captain Ralph Paton of suspicion. In the course of the novel, Poirot realises that retirement is not for him, and becomes a world-famous private detective.

Private investigating is also a second career for Walter Mosley's Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins. Rawlins had a career working in an aircraft-manufacturing plant. But after World War II ended, the defense industry changed considerably and Rawlins was laid off from his job. Now unemployed and desperate to earn enough money to keep his house and take care of his family, Rawlins accepts an unusual commission in
Devil in a Blue Dress. He's hired by DeWitt Albright to track down Daphne Monet, who seems to have stolen thirty thousand dollars from Todd Carter, a wealthy investment banker whom she jilted. Rawlins' success in this case earns him enough money to start life over, and so begins his new career as a PI.

Dick Francis' Sid Halley's been forced to take up a new career. He was a successful jockey. But in
Odds Against, Halley's had a career-ending injury to his left hand. He needs a job desperately, so he takes a job with Hunt Radnor Associates, a private detective agency. Two years into his job there, he's shot. While he's recovering, his father-in-law Charles Roland convinces him to investigate Howard Kraye, whom Roland suspects of trying to take over his racetrack. Halley agrees and that decision hurtles him into a new career as a racetrack investigator.

And then there's Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder. He's a former New York City police officer whose life fell apart when he accidentally killed a young girl. In Sins of the Fathers, we learn that Scudder turned to drink, left his family and now earns his living as a private investigator. At first, he's unlicensed and earns his money doing what he calls "favors for friends." Later in the series, he stops drinking and actually earns his "official" PI license.

Private investigation wasn't the first career choice for Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone, either. She joined the Santa Teresa, California police force, only to find that the structure and regulations of working on a police force didn't really suit her personality. So she joined a private investigation agency and since then, has struck out on her own. Millhone's case is interesting, too because we get to see the influence of her police academy training on the way she goes about her investigation.

My own Joel Williams has changed careers, too. He's a former Tilton, Pennsylvania police detective. After eighteen years on the force, he decided that he wanted to teach about law enforcement instead of practice it. So he went back to school and got his Ph.D. Now, he's in the Department of Criminal Justice at Tilton University, and he likes it. He enjoys teaching and working with students, and he very much enjoys keeping "real" hours and being able to be home for dinner most nights. Um, that doesn't stop him from getting involved in crime, though…

Some fictional sleuths don't leave the police force; instead, they change careers within the police force. For example, Robert B. Parker's Jesse Stone was an L.A.P.D. homicide detective. But when his actress wife Jennifer Stone left him, he developed a drinking problem that cost him his job. Loaded with personal problems and the remnants of an injury from his days playing minor league baseball, Stone showed up drunk for an interview for the job of police chief of Paradise, Massachusetts. He got the job because the Powers that Be in the town thought that they could manipulate him. They were wrong. As the novels featuring him go on, Stone shows what a determined and independent-thinking police chief he is. As a person Stone's evolved, too. He struggles with his alcohol problem but is determined not to let his drinking rule his life. He's also trying to get his personal life back together.

Tim Comstock's Will Kempton has made a major change in careers within the police force, too. He worked for fourteen years as a narcotics cop in Jersey City, New Jersey (trust me; not a plum, easy assignment). After the death of his wife Debbie, Kempton moved with his two children to beautiful, peaceful Carmel, California to serve as chief of police. In
Reunion at Carmel, Kempton and his children are settled into his new life and all's going well. Then, nineteen-year-old Brady Carson is brutally murdered. Then, there's another gruesome killing. Mayor Elliott Randolph is up for re-election against a media-savvy opponent who's only too eager to paint Randolph as a poor mayor and Kempton as an inept cop. So there's a lot of political and media pressure to solve the crime. Kempton hastily assembles a small group of local police officers to find the killer; they soon discover, though, that this murderer is not typical. He's a vicious, conscienceless killer who seems to be far more than the small team can handle. Now, Kempton has to, in a way, return to his old life to catch the criminal.

I'll be interested to see what this new year may bring in terms of sleuths' career changes.
Patricia Stoltey's Sylvia Thorn retired from her position as a Florida judge at the end of The Prairie Grass Murders, and I look forward to finding out what she chooses next as a career. And Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus has retired, too. I wonder whether he'll be back and in what capacity. And what about Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch? He's approaching mandatory retirement age, and it'll be very interesting to find out what he does when that time comes. Only time will tell…

What about you? Have you changed careers? Have your favourite sleuths?

: The title of this post is the title of an REO Speedwagon song.


  1. Well, I get the coolest surprises when I drop by your blog, Margot. Thanks for mentioning Sylvia Thorn. She was just hanging out when "The Desert Hedge Murders" began, and I do put her to work at the end of the novel, although the job may prove to be temporary. She's been thinking it over while I tried my hand at writing in different genres.

    I think a lot of authors have changed careers more than once as well. I spent most of my working years in warehouse inventory accounts payable for grocery chains and accounts payable financial control for an office supply company, but I've also worked in a temp agency, a small university airport operations center, and a lawyer's office. Now I write (when I'm not blogging and tweeting, etc.). No wonder our protagonists are so unsettled.

  2. Patricia - That's what I like about Sylvia; she's trying to make sense of everything and even though she has that new job, we see that things could change. To me, it gives Sylvia a really interesting personality and perspective.

    Your background sounds fascinating, too! I'd no idea you'd done so many different things! For some reason I'm really intrigued by the fact that you worked at a university airport operations center. It sounds really interesting. And I think you're right; the varied our own backgrounds are, the more interesting and sometimes unsettled our protagonists can be...

  3. Great topic! Yes, I've changed careers. I started in restaurant management, moved to computers, moved to accounting and now I'm a full-time writer.

    Change of careers is so common that it's natural for a police officer or detective to make the change as well.

    In one of my stand-alone novels, my detective is a professor of history that couldn't find a job so he applied to be a police officer in the meantime. After seven years, he's still a police officer.


  4. Clarissa - Thanks :-) And how interesting! I didn't know you'd started in restaurant management. Those are some crazy hours and a lot of stress (not that computers or accounting is any less stress-inducing, I suppose). And I agree, it really is pretty natural for a fiction detective to make career changes, too.

    I think it's interesting that your detective has become a police officer instead of being a former police officer, as a lot of sleuths (including mine) are. I'm sure that gives him an interesting perspective on his team-mates who were always cops and on the job in general.

  5. Oh boy - this is almost worse than the moving house thing. OK - you ready?:
    nursing assistant - old folks home, cook in fine restaurants, taverns, hotels, daycares and logging camp, daycare administrator, community animator, bartender, choker person (high-lead logging), convention planner, facilitator, teacher (sub and in university - no teaching degree), curriculum designer, psychotherapist (still), corporate management trainer, clown (still), professional writer (still), newspaper reporter, shop clerk in boutique, line worker in a shake factory, receptionist and assistant to veternarian, cleaning person at old folk's home, artistic director at theatre, arts administrator, tour manager, entrepreneur, entrepreneurial facilitator, own mystery business (still), actor, director, playwrite, ...I think that is it.
    I like my protagonist to have one job. I find it soothing.

  6. Jan - Whew! I'm getting tired just reading your list of different jobs! Wow! One of the things about such a varied background is that it makes you such an interesting person. You've got lots of perspective, too, which I'm sure helps you as you work with clients, readers, and just about everyone you interact with.

    I'm not surprised, though, that you like for your protagonist to have one job. It does allow for a restful kind of continuity.

  7. not counting all the jobs I took to pay the bills while at Uni (retail, bar work, punching holes in paper at a factory, usher...but some of these weren't for long periods) I've probably had 3 distinct careers - archivist then IT now policy advisor in Government (though the jobs kind of merged into each other.

    Lots of Dick Francis' protagonists have to change jobs in addition to Sid Halley who you mention - tends to happen in the sporting world I suppose that you can't do your first job for ever. I can't think of any but wonder if there are other fictional ex-sporting stars who go into crime solving

  8. Bernadette - I think most of us took all sorts of different jobs to pay bills while at school. I know I did. It's interesting, too, that you mention the way your careers merged into each other. I'll bet that's true for a lot of people. Our interests may change, but our basic special talents probably don't as much. At least that's what I've noticed in my own case.

    When I read your mention of fictional former sports starts who get into crime solving, I immediately thought of Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar. He used to be a basketball star but is now an agent who also solves crimes. I think you're right that it's very difficult to have a lifelong sporting career. And there's plenty of crime in that world to go around...

  9. I wish I were, but with an income of § 3 from my ´writing career´ in 2010, perhaps I´d better cling on to my teaching job for the time being :D

    It might be easier to do something about my protagonists. I tend to create teachers or librarians because I can write about them without researching too much, and recently I came up with a writer of historical fiction. Talk about comfort zone.

  10. I've enjoyed reading the comments and finding out what paths people have taken, although Jan's list has made me exhausted! I've moved from legal secretary to data entry to actor to costume designer to director to producer to writer. Oh, and mother.

  11. Dorte - LOL! I know *exactly* what you mean! My own writing career hasn't exactly given me a comfortable "cushion," either. So I, too, am keeping my "day job."

    I find it easiest to create protagonists who've done things I've done, too. I rationalise it by saying I can make them more realistic. That's what I keep telling myself ;-).

  12. Elspeth - You've had a fascinating journey, yourself! I wish I had the visual intelligence to design costumes. That takes real visual skill. And yes, that mother role is a pretty crucial one. Done that one myself...

  13. One sleuth that comes to mind that is constantly changing jobs is Elaine Viets' character Helen Hawthorne in the Dead-End Job Mystery series. As for me, I've been in the same career so long I don't even want to count. :) Great post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  14. Mason - Thanks :-). And thanks for mentioning Helen Hawthorne. You're absolutely right; she's never long in the same job, let alone the same career. It makes her a kind of versatile character. I think it's actually kind of nice that you've been able to stay in the same career: if that means that you've found something you enjoy and are skilled at doing, so much the better :-).

  15. What a great post. I am sure even things like cop in a big city to cop in a small village would technically count as a career change - the amount of adjustment you need to make, you may as well have shifted careers. Tommy and Tuppence Bredford is another example- they are at totally differnent stages of their life in each of the books, and multiple careers too.

    As for me, I trained to be a 'materials science' physicist, but quit without submitting my thesis. The 'real' jobs I have held have each been a totally new career - personal banking, investment banking, financial advisor on government projects, organizational behaviour consultant, Mother, microfinance specialist, fund-raiser for a non-profit, and finally my current job when I fund-raise for other non-profits. Had I stuck to any of them, I would probably be a CEO by now, but at every point in my life, I believed I had the best job in the world, and I have never been bored. Could anyone ask for more?

  16. Rayna - Thank you :-). And thanks for the great reminder of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. They certainly have had more than one career in their lives, and I always liked it that Christie let them age in real time. It made them quite realistic.

    From physics to finance to fund-raising; you've had such an interesting work life! I'm so happy, too, that you've always been fortunate enough to have a job/career that really fulfilled you. Your job lets you do what you love to do and help others, too. And you get to raise those wonderful sons of yours. As you say, what more is there to want?

  17. I've changed careers a couple of times, but probably less than the average!

    One person who changes careers in quite an interesting way is Varg Veum, Gunnar Staalesen's Bergen-based private detective. He was a social worker involved in child protection for years, until he got so upset by all the misery etc that he witnessed. He quit and became a private eye- not that successful financially - and his old cases often come back to haunt him or turn out to be relevant in some way. There's no escaping..... ;-)

  18. Maxine - No, I think you're right. There really is no escaping one's past. Hmmm....I feel a post coming on.. ;-).

    I've heard from a variety of sources that the Varg Veum series is a good one. I admit that I haven't delved into it, but from what you and others have said, I should. I can see, too, how cases in Veum's past would affect what he's doing now. It's a very reasonable connection.

  19. I love this post b/c it relates to me both as a person and as a writer. Yes, I have changed careers--but not in an admitted and necessarily definable way. I mean, i still work some in my old field--news producing. But I'd like to be more of a writer. Make sense?

    And my MC is going to go through something similar to this as well...Closer to Lawrence Block's MC than to my own change.

    Interesting post, Margot! (As usual)


  20. Michele - Awww, thanks!! It certainly does make sense to me - complete sense - that you'd have changed careers in a more nebulous way. Perhaps it's more accurate to say you've changed your focus? And I'd love to be more focused on my writing, too than I can be now. We'll see if I can make that happen...

    I'm intrigued by your MC, too! I look forward to reading your work...