by J.D. Rhoades
Yes, I know, it was yesterday. But it got me to thinking about how many characters in crime fiction are ex-military…and why.
Harry Bosch is an ex-Vietnam "tunnel rat." Elvis Cole’s an ex-Army Ranger, while Joe Pike’s a former Marine. Jack Reacher’s an ex-MP who got caught in the explosion of the Marine barracks in Beirut. Our Zoe’s Charlie Fox is ex-SAS. Both of James Crumley’s PIs, Milo Milodragovitch and C.W. Sughrue, are ex-military intelligence. Travis McGee’s a veteran of a war that’s never really specified, but we assume it’s Korea. Chris Grabenstein’s John Ceepak is a veteran of the Second Gulf War; my own Jack Keller’s a veteran of the First, while his lover Marie’s another ex-MP. Walter Mosely’s Easy Rawlins is a WWII vet, as is Stephen Hunter’s Earl Swagger and Spillane’s Mike Hammer. Even Lindsey Davis’ Falco is an ex-legionary, while Brother Cadfael served in the First Crusade. I could go on, but you get the point.
So why are so many crime fiction protagonists ex-military? Well, for one thing, it already gives them a certain amount of built-in bad-ass cred. It’s a little more plausible that someone who’s been in the military, particularly in combat, would have less trouble handling guns and would be less likely to fall apart in a fit of the shakes in the event that they have to drop the hammer on some bad guy.
Then there’s the increased possibility that an ex-soldier or Marine will have some sort of tragic backstory. Jack Keller’s still shaking off the PTSD caused by a "friendly fire" incident in the First Gulf War. Rennie Airth’s John Madden is still trying to get over the horrors of trench warfare in the First World War.
On the up-side, the virtues the military instills (or at least tries to) in its members can come in handy for a crime fiction protagonist: Duty. Honor. Sacrifice. Self-reliance. Courage.
The same types of things, it should be noted, apply to another oft-seen breed of protagonist: the cop or the ex-cop.
But this raises the question: is it sometimes too easy to clothe a character in an ex-military uniform to make him either admirable or tortured or both? Do we risk getting cliched?
(I’ll note that Our Zoe manages to dodge the trap of cliche quite nimbly by giving Charlie Fox’s story a particularly dark twist: she hasn’t been in combat, but what happened to her at the hands of some supposed comrades leaves scars just as deep and lasting.)
What do you think about characters who are ex-military? Done to death? Can’t get enough? How else, other than making a character an ex-soldier or a cop, do you give him or her that bad-ass credibility and sad past? And while we’re at it…who’s your favorite ex-soldier?
The floor is open. And to all our veterans…thanks.