July 2005

Clayton Moore

mystery strumpet

Freeze! Police!

I’ve had a long and strange relationship with the police. Growing up in the old south, I have actually heard the words, “You in a heap o’ trouble, boy,” used in all seriousness. I’ve lived in places where I would never have considered piercing anything -- that’s just one more thing for a cop to grab hold of and yank. I swear I’ve hit every speed trap west of the Mississippi, like Mack’s Creek, Missouri, where I got busted three times in the town’s legendary speed trap.

That said, you grow up. As I’ve traveled through the world’s great cities and seen the hardcore realities that the police face every day, you start to cut them a little slack. I don’t even want to face this country, full of armed lunatics and simple despair, most days, let alone be on the front lines. From simple street cops to homicide detectives in some of the worst places on the planet, it’s a fascinating and bizarre job that justifies our attention and keeps half the crime writers in business.

If you can pull yourself away from CSI for a few minutes, there are a number of books coming out that add to the rich world of the police detective. One of the more intellectual offerings of the past few months is Robert Jackall’s Street Stories: The World of Police Detectives from Harvard University Press. The author spent two years doing fieldwork with detectives of the New York City Police Department in the early 1990’s. He saw riots first-hand in flak-jacket and helmet, worked with Central Robbery covering the five boroughs and did time with the detective squad in Manhattan’s 34th precinct in one of its bloodiest years.

The book itself is a detail-rich look at the strange and glorious world of the NYPD. It doesn’t have the dramatic flair of tabloid reporting or the personal insight of a memoir but instead tells a rich and complete story of individual cases that capture the imagination. It opens with the famous story of Operation Jackpot, a sting in which the NYPD sent out invitations to wanted criminals inviting them to a mock nightclub at Port Authority (a stunt later borrowed by Hollywood in Sea of Love, starring Al Pacino).

Jackall, who became known among the detectives and prosecutors as “The Professor,” lends a tremendous weight to his chronicle of the cops and lawyers busting New York’s worst. The book is very readable, with an almost journalistic prose that recounts not only the dramatic details of shootings and assaults but also the numbing investigative work it takes to burrow out and convict a city’s murderers.

Cops talk to people. That’s how it works. Out of all those conversations come the stories, an endless parade of oral tradition that would the Greeks to the test.

Street Stories takes readers into detectives’ world through their stories,” Jackall explains. “The book tells several tales about the way New York City police detectives investigate violent crimes in an unruly metropolis. The more complicated the case, the more intricate the story. By listening carefully, one can hear their inspirations, sensibilities, hopes, resentments and fears. Detectives’ stories also illuminate some of the darkest corners of modern society.”

While I actually found the tales in Street Stories as compelling as any of the fiction I’ve read recently, we should take some times for the cops and robbers of fiction, too.

Back on the other coast, there’s a new story out with Harry Bosch, a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department, an equally decadent and aggressive city. Michael Connelly’s Edgar-award winning detective continues with The Closers, the 11th installment of the long-running series. After a three-year retirement, Harry has returned to join the department’s cold case squad. It’s interesting to see a detective that, far from being in his prime, has gone a bit rusty and screws up once in a while. Connelly’s brutal prose is at its best here, though, as Bosch unravels the dark story of a high school girl killed and buried in her own backyard.

Jeffery Deaver knows his way around police procedures and isn’t afraid to get his hands wet in forensics but he also has a wonderfully theatrical sense of pace (something that led to the better-than-expected film translation of Deaver’s The Bone Collector with Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie). Deaver has brought back his paraplegic detective in last month’s The Twelfth Card. In one of his typical twisting plots, Deaver sends Lincoln Rhyme and his lovely assistant Amelia Sachs chasing the killers after 16 year old Geneva Settle, attacked in a Manhattan library while researching her ancestry.

Back in the Deep South, James Lee Burke resurrects Dave Robicheaux from the swamps of Louisiana for the 14th book in his series, Crusader’s Cross. More than anybody else in the genre, Robicheaux gets put through a world of hurt each time and the new book is no exception. His wife dead and his daughter gone off to college, the haunted southerner returns to the New Iberia police parish to chase down a serial killer. Like the best of the books, Crusader’s Cross also reaches deep into the dark and secretive crevasses of the south, as Robicheaux burns black rage about the inequality and sheer injustice of his chosen home.

Nothing like cops and robbers. Hands where I can see 'em.