**Without Fear or Favor

NYCity  police officer

photo: scubacopper, creative commons license

By Robert K. Tanenbaum – Among many other legal posts, Tanenbaum has been a prosecutor, an Assistant District Attorney, has taught law, and served two terms as mayor of Beverly Hills, California. This book-jacket terms him “a New York Times bestselling author,” although many readers have learned that doesn’t necessarily mean what we think it does. This is the 29th book in the long-running series of legal thrillers featuring New York City District Attorney Roger “Butch” Karp and his wife, investigator Marlene Ciampi. How could one man do all that? Easy. He didn’t.

In a rather notorious (in writing circles) revelation in 2003, Tanenbaum’s cousin, Michael Gruber revealed he had ghostwritten the “bestselling author’s” novels, the two had parted ways, and he was pursuing his own writing career. Followed by a rather inexpert successor, the quality of Tanenbaum’s books reportedly suffered, then for a while it appeared more skilled hands were at the computer keyboard. I knew none of this when I read Without Fear or Favor, but Tanenbaum’s hunt for a good ghostwriter should continue.

The new novel tells the story of a white cop murdered by a black militant who uses the nom de guerre, Nat X. Nat X proclaims that there’s a war on black people, and cops are the enemy. He does murder a policeman early in the story, then entices a teenager to shoot another one, and the remainder of the book is about bringing him to justice.

In some respects, this book is the antithesis of Don Winslow’s The Force, also about black-white relations in New York City as they collide within the criminal justice system. In Winslow’s book, corruption is rampant; in Tanenbaum’s, aside from three vigilante cops, duly punished, the police, the investigators, and the prosecutors are models of probity. Their solid ideals are revealed in unrealistic lengthy statements, more like essays than realistic conversations.

If these editorial opinions were confined to one or two characters, you might accept that they reflect a particular character’s point of view and bombastic communications style, but they also appear in the narration, which becomes indistinguishable from the characters’ “good citizenship” and “flaws in the system” lectures.

In addition to constant editorializing, the writer has a bad habit of introducing a bolus of superficial backstory every time a new character is introduced. It doesn’t explore the individual at all, and you’re left to apply whatever assumptions you may have about someone described as a product of “only the finest prep schools.”

Unsurprisingly, the story is loaded with clichés and stereotyped and cardboard characters. Perhaps most puzzling are the courtroom scenes of Nat X’s trial. I wonder whether Tanenbaum even read them. The defense attorney is not a worthy adversary for protagonist Karp, which greatly undercuts the tension of the trial. Not to mention that her deceptive behavior might well subject her to an ethics investigation.

Instead, How About . . .

If you like legal thrillers, you may find more believable courtroom drama in Steve Cavanagh’s The Liar or The Plea or Brad Parks’s recent Say Nothing. Or, come to Richardson Auditorium on October to hear John Grisham, Wednesday October 25, 2017, 4:30 p.m. Tickets on sale at the Auditorium website at noon October 19.

***The Force

NYPD Detective badgeBy Don Winslow, narrated by Dion Graham – For a while yet, perhaps every gritty, noir cop story set in urban America will be compared with the television series The Wire in terms of realism, character development, and sheer storytelling power. (Dion Graham, who narrates the audio version of Don Winslow’s much-anticipated new cop tale played a state’s attorney in that series.)

In both stories, the stultifying and morally questionable “powers that be” come up against a loose cannon Irish cop. In this case, Detective First Grade Denny Malone whose turf is Manhattan North, which includes Harlem and the Upper West Side. Malone, a chief detective on the Manhattan North Special Task Force—“da Force”—is a king. “Malone and the Task Force, they weren’t just any cops on the Job. You got thirty-eight thousand wearing blue, Denny Malone and his guys were the 1 percent of the 1 percent of the 1 percent—the smartest, the toughest, the quickest, the bravest, the best, the baddest.” So it’s no surprise that all manner of people want to take him down.

Winslow’s novel starts with a spectacular heroin bust Malone and his team make, and the consequences of that flow through the city, the justice system, and the lives and careers of all his characters. The essential question of the book is, whom do you trust? And Malone questions even himself.

A good cop novel is a thing of beauty. It shows every side of human nature; people struggling against poverty, the odds, themselves; the human comedy and life’s tragedies; bold acts of selfless heroism; and, often, a meticulous deconstruction of how high-minded public servants go bad. This novel has all that.

Expectations for The Force are high. Winslow’s 2015 exposé of drug trafficking, The Cartel, was excellent. His plots snare and bind his characters ever more tightly. The main characters—not only Malone, but his partners—his best friend Phil Russo and Bill Montague, a.k.a. Big Monty—are people you want to root for, so what if they’re a little dirty?

Winslow shows how corruption works, in detail, from the inside. That’s why it’s puzzling that he brings the key officials together for a scene near the end of the book in which Malone climbs up on a soapbox and recites their malefactions. The author tended toward preachiness in The Cartel too, but there it seemed warranted, since so many Americans are oblivious to the problems he exposed.

But readers of The Force likely know plenty about official corruption. For starters, Winslow has just spent more than four hundred pages showing it to them. Bleak as The Wire was, some cops tried to do the right things the right way; some characters redeemed themselves after grievous errors; some city institutions actually tried to make life better for citizens. In The Force, everyone is compromised. Some good can only be accomplished by doing a lot of bad. While you may believe widespread corruption exists, it takes a high level of cynicism to think it is the only social force at work. This book should have been better.

Dion Graham’s narration provides distinct voices, good humor, and an urgent delivery that carried me through to the end, which probably would have been a little harder to accomplish in the print version. The book itself was a disappointment. An author of Winslow’s stature and gifts could have done better.

A longer version of this review appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com.

****Fateful Mornings

police car

photo: Highway Patrol Images, creative commons license

By Tom Bouman – Henry Farrell is the lone policeman who patrols the back roads of Wild Thyme township in rural northeastern Pennsylvania.

Mostly his job isn’t too demanding. He can park his vehicle and spend time enjoying the local lakes and forests without anyone much missing him. He can even take on an illegal after-hours job. He helps dismantle old barns and salvage the wood for new barns designed by his best friend, word-working genius Ed Brennan.

In Bouman’s fine descriptions of Henry’s world, you can just about smell the trees and ponds along with Henry, who narrates most chapters. In Henry and several other principal characters in this rural noir novel, Bouman has created well-rounded, complex individuals. Henry also plays fiddle in a roots music trio, for example.

These bucolic images coexist uneasily alongside the dirty business of hydraulic fracking and the even dirtier practice of drug dealing, which are ravaging the natural and human resources of Wild Thyme. As a result, law enforcement in the township is about to face some serious challenges. At first, it’s an uptick in burglaries and motor vehicle accidents, which Henry attributes to the rise in drug abuse.

But then a young woman goes missing. Penny Pellings is a sometimes heroin user who lives in a trailer with her boyfriend. The pair has lost custody of their infant daughter. Though they want her back, they aren’t on a road that can lead to that outcome.

The search for Penny Pellings requires the casting of a rather wide net, which takes Henry out of his jurisdiction. He has a thoughtful, amiable demeanor that helps him interact well with nearby departments that have many more resources than he does in Wild Thyme. So many crime novels focus on the turf battles and stonewalling between police agencies, it’s refreshing to see real cooperation.

Investigating Penny’s fate is an almost geological endeavor. Each layer excavated reveals another, with its own mysteries. In the end, the resolution of her story seems almost secondary to the 360-degree picture of the community of Wild Thyme that the author has created.

Bouman won an Edgar Award in 2015 for his first novel, Dry Bones in the Valley, also featuring Henry Farrell.

A longer version of this review appeared recently on CrimeFictionLover.com.

***Casting Bones

mardi-gras mask, New Orleans

photo: Larry Johnson, creative commons license

By Don Bruns – This is the first of a new series of police procedurals set in what the publisher calls “one of the most fascinating cities in the world: New Orleans.” Bruns—with five books in his Caribbean series and seven in the popular “Stuff” series—delights in the Big Easy’s atmosphere and culture in creating his backdrops, colorful cast of characters, and the shenanigans that take place. It’s a story that could take place only there, which is a real plus—like a visit without all the calories.

Disgraced former Detroit police detective Quentin Archer has relocated to Nawlins to restart his career. His ability to stay in Detroit floundered when he fingered a fellow Motor City cop—and, by the way, his two policeman brothers—for drug dealing. Suffice it to say, he’s a man who has to watch his back.

His interpersonal relations aren’t that much better in his new job. He can’t trust his partner, who admits to selling information about cases to unknown parties, and the mercurial sergeant in charge overtly dislikes the Detroit man. In the way of supervisors everywhere, he can make Archer’s life miserable and does.

When the body of a New Orleans juvenile court judge is found floating in the Mississippi River, the principal question on Archer’s mind is, Why? Why shoot Judge David Lerner? Was it because of his notoriously harsh sentences? Or did it have to do with the mysterious printouts found in the back of his Jag? Before any of these questions can be answered, in a bit of piling on,  two more judges are dead—one in a strange, possibly staged, motor vehicle accident, and the other in a mugging-gone-wrong.

In true New Orleans style, at least as much is hidden as is revealed. It’s as if the murky waters of the muddy Mississippi obscure the vision of the entire town, and no one seems to want the truth. Meanwhile, his partner—with the connivance of the higher-ups concerned about tourism—is on the verge of railroading a young black kitchen worker for Lerner’s death. Archer has only days to come up with an alternative scenario that sticks.

He finds help from an unusual ally when he encounters Solange Cordray, the beautiful daughter of a voodoo priestess. Because this is a multiple point-of-view novel, you read Cordray’s interpretation of events as well as Archer’s, his partner’s, and others’. It’s clear that her special knowledge of events past and future is not a cynical fabrication, and that, although what she perceives as messages from the spirits is not always clear, she sincerely believes them.

Some loose ends, especially regarding Archer’s Detroit woes, are not totally tied up by this book’s end, suggesting sequels to come. The publisher under-invested in proofreading, but, bottom line, this is a fast-paced read with great atmosphere and interesting characters and situations.

Writing Police Interviews Right

police-station

photo: Jelm6, creative commons license

As in real life, in movies, television, and stories, police interviews—whether of witnesses or perpetrators—are vital to figuring out what has occurred. Interviews reveal facts (maybe) and impressions of everyone involved (for sure). Experts at several recent crime-writing conferences talked about how writers can get this aspect of police work right (also see this post), specifically when it comes to interviewing witnesses and in officer-involved shootings.

Witness Interviews

Police detectives working today in the United States, UK, Canada, Australia, and other countries are likely to have been trained in cognitive interviewing. These techniques, developed and tested over the past 30 years, improve the amount of information witnesses recall, avoid the creation of false memories, and reveal discrepancies in testimony.

The detective may ask open-ended questions that walk the person through the hours before the event, encouraging as many details as possible. Such careful establishment of the context of the crime helps the interviewee recall it in greater detail. Similarly, the interviewer may suggest reconstructing events backwards. In all cases, interviewers encourage reporting even the smallest detail, which may be hooked, in memory, to something significant. And, buried in there may be an important clue.

This academic video from the University of Queensland describes the scientific underpinnings of cognitive interviewing and the tests that have been used to demonstrate its greater effectiveness, in terms of amount and accuracy of information recalled, compared to traditional question-and-answer interviews.

Police-involved Shootings

Police officers involved in a shooting are generally not immediately taken away for an extensive debrief. When their stress levels are too high, they may be unable to provide coherent descriptions of what occurred and may not recall key information. A delayed interview

24 to 48 hours (ideally, two sleep cycles) later produces more cogent details. From a writer’s perspective, this delay gives the media and community time to speculate on the events and to be concerned “nothing’s being done.”

Additional considerations in writing about officer-involved shootings are covered in this interesting article about how the police react to such events and move toward investigation.