How Authors Get Police Procedures Right

Guest Post: Author John Schembra

Are you writing police mystery-thrillers? Want to get the policing details right? I do too, though I may have an advantage, having been a police officer for 30 years in Contra Costa County, east of San Francisco.

The home setting for my books is the San Francisco Police Department, but sometimes my characters must seek the help of or coordinate with other departments or federal agencies. Cross-jurisdictional situations present a challenge for writers, as not all law enforcement agencies conduct investigations the same way. General investigative protocols are roughly the same, but every department will have its own set of procedures. These differences may affect evidence collection, interrogations, interviews, use-of-force policies, and so on. The list is long.

Meanwhile, your readers have diverse backgrounds, which means there is always that person out there who will know if you make a mistake—and probably tell you so. Research is critical. Knowing how a particular agency conducts investigations, along with its personnel’s everyday duties, adds realism and actually makes the writing simpler, helping you manage the possibilities.

Getting police procedures right has other benefits too. It can make a difference in whether readers believe your story, which has a big impact on whether they like your work overall. If they do, your book could show up in a favorable review, and your fans can give it good marks in discussions with other potential readers. Unfortunately, if you get those details wrong, it could mean a less than sterling review, and none of us want that.

But how do you conduct the research you need? The best way is to talk to a police officer from the agency you are writing about. In my books, set in the SFPD, I was lucky that my best friend’s son and daughter-in-law were SFPD officers, and the wife was a forensics and crime scene technician. They were a big help whenever I needed answers to a procedural question.

In addition, I’m a member of the Public Safety Writers’ Association, whose membership is made up of people from around the country with police, fire, emergency medical service, and military backgrounds and the people who write about them. That network is unfailingly helpful to writers.

If the agency in your book is fictitious, model its procedures after an agency that resembles it. Look for one of similar size, serving a community with similar demographics, and use its procedures.

Very likely the agency you’re using as a setting will have a website, and you can contact (via email) the public information officer. I have found them to be very accommodating and willing to help. They want policing information to be correct too!

Bottom line: getting it right is satisfying and enjoyable for readers and, I believe, makes the story easier to write. It enables you to cover the all-important details that will make your readers feel they were there.

John Schembra spent a year with the 557th MP Company at Long Binh, South Vietnam, in 1970. His experiences as a combat MP contributed to his first book, M.P., A Novel of Vietnam. Upon completing his military service, John joined the Pleasant Hill (California) Police Department in Contra Costa County. In 2001, he retired from there as a Sergeant, after 30 years of service. His second novel, Retribution (2007), describes homicide detective Vince Torelli’s hunt for a serial killer. Since then, he’s published two more novels featuring Torelli—Diplomatic Immunity (2012)and Blood Debt (2019)—as well as the stand-alone, Sin Eater (2016).

Movie Jam-Up

popcorn

In Hollywood’s haste to release films under the wire for this year’s Oscars, a number of excellent movies appeared during the holiday season, and I haven’t even seen them all yet. But I would recommend these:

Ford v Ferrari – One of the most exciting films I’ve seen in a long time, and not a single spy in sight, other than the corporate kind (trailer). And the tension held, even though I knew the ending. Yes, some of the corporate doings of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and his management team were fictionalized, but not Ford’s 1966 accomplishments on the LeMans race course. Wisely, Ford entrusted creation of his racing vehicles to legendary engineer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who insisted on using his favorite driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Damon and Bale are perfection. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 92%; audiences 98%.

Little Women – So much has been said about how writer/director Greta Gerwig draws new insights from this much-produced tale. Her framing of the story of four sisters growing up in the mid-19th century works (trailer), and in sister Jo’s (Saoirse Ronan’s) negotiations with her publisher (Tracy Letts again), the blending of Jo with author Louisa May Alcott is clear. Amy (Florence Pugh) receives a more well-rounded treatment than usual. She has the best lines of the movie, suggested by Meryl Streep, when she matter-of-factly explains to Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) that marriage for a woman is not a question of love, but finances. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 95%; audiences 92%.

Dark Waters – Tales of crusading lawyers and journalists (think Spotlight, The Post) are especially refreshing in these times, when idealism seems quaintly outmoded. The film is based on the true story of how a determined Cincinnati lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) takes on DuPont for covering up the damaging health effects of Teflon exposure (trailer). He persists, even though the head of his law firm (Tim Robbins), which serves many corporate clients, is reluctant; his wife (Anne Hathaway) thinks he’s unhinged; his kids grow up; and the powerful company works for two decades to shut him down. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 90%; audiences 95%.

Knives Out – It’s very entertaining to see writer/director Rian Johnson put this great cast—among them, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, and Ana de Armas—through its paces (trailer). Wealthy family patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who made a fortune writing mystery stories (this is fiction, remember) is found dead of an apparent suicide. But was it? Not only do his children stand to inherit, but they all have additional motives to kill him. Or do they? Courtly Southern detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives to sort lies from truth. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 97%; audiences 92%.

****City of Windows

snow city blizzard

By Robert Pobi – In a CrimeFictionLovers interview with Robert Pobi about his 2012 debut novel Bloodman, he revealed he’d wanted to write an old-fashioned character-driven story. He’s done it again with his new police procedural, City of Windows.

Ten years before the start of this book, Dr. Lucas Page, astrophysicist, left his FBI career on uneasy terms after an accident with explosives nearly killed him. He now has a prosthetic arm, a prosthetic leg, and one ceramic eye that doesn’t quite track with the other. Page’s challenges in dealing with the bionic parts of his body greatly increase the depth of his character.

Now Page teaches at Columbia University in Manhattan. He thinks his students are generally lackluster, but then he has a jaded view of most things. Except his family. His wife Erin is a pediatrician. They have five kids and a happy dog—a ragtag collection of children “whose biological parents had failed them and the system had given up on.” The family interactions provide a nice balance to the story’s crime elements, though the kids are possibly too cooperative.

As the university’s semester closes out for the Christmas holiday, a huge blizzard is under way. Many blocks south in midtown Manhattan, a bizarre shooting has occurred, and the news reports show Page’s old FBI colleagues working the case. The victim was in a moving vehicle, shot from a high angle from a considerable distance. Identifying the sniper’s nest will be difficult.

Because Page has an uncanny ability to plot bullet trajectories and lines of sight, that evening’s visit from his former FBI supervisor, though unwelcome, is not unexpected. The Bureau is involved because the dead man was one of their own, Page’s former partner. Page’s uncanny ability, though rusty, still works—automatic, instinctive, and unexplainable. He identifies a building almost eight football fields away from the point of impact.

Old jealousies arise, family needs pull at him, his former supervisor is as opaque as ever, there’s political pressure to pin the shooting on a Muslim extremist, without any evidence, and Page is not on a track that will make him friends, but when a second law enforcement officer is assassinated a mere thirteen hours later, any hope evaporates that the first agent’s death was a fluke. In his heart of hearts, Page loves this work.

The second victim was shot on the semi-crowded tram that operates between Roosevelt Island and Manhattan, moving at almost eighteen miles an hour, through the continuing snowstorm, from a distance of almost a half-mile. Another impossible shot. And again, Page pinpoints the shooter’s position. When yet a third law enforcement officer is killed, it’s clear the killer is after specific individuals, but they seem unrelated and even are from different law enforcement agencies. Figuring out what they have in common calls on Page’s insightful investigatory skills, aided by three of those maligned college students.

As the bodies pile up, it appears that Page and his family are the assassin’s ultimate targets. This is the book’s weakest point, as it seems manufactured so the plot can culminate in a showdown between Page and the killer. While the rationale for the earlier murders follows a kind of twisted logic, the targeting of Page and his family does not. That problem aside, the story provides plenty of thrills along the way, and I hope Pobi writes more about Lucas Page.

Photo: from Pixabay

Four for the Road

****A Rising Man

India, dawn, village

Abir Mukherjee’s 2017 debut novel is an easy-to-read police procedural that shares many of the charms of his subsequent novel, A Necessary Evil, which I reviewed some time ago. Set in India around 1920, it provides a probably too-rosy view of the Raj, though many of the social problems, the racism, the unrest are certainly there. Nevertheless, within the frame of Mukherjee’s clever plot, in the end, you come away feeling you know more about the culture and the country than when you opened the book.

****If She Wakes

Michael Koryta’s thriller possesses what might be one plot thread too many, though the inciting event—a murder in which the only witness is injured and suffering from locked-in syndrome—starts the plot moving with a bang. If only she’d come out of it, she might have useful information about the murder. The principal protagonist, an insurance investigator, knows this. The FBI knows it. Her sister knows it. And so do the assassins who want to ensure her silence lasts forever. Medical websites consider locked-in syndrome a “rare neurological disorder,” but it’s not rare in thrillers! Here’s another good one.

*****The Siege of Troy

Yes, that Troy. Theodor Kallifatides uses a Greek classroom in WWII as the setting for a teacher’s inspired retelling of the tale of the Achaeans’ quest to recapture Helen, the frightful battles, the death of Hector, the loss of Achilles, and the cunning horse. Beautifully done, and a pleasure to read!

****The Chain

Adrian McKinty has received considerable publicity with this book, in part because it almost didn’t get written. Author of several excellent police procedurals featuring Catholic Sean Duffy, a detective with the heavily Protestant Belfast police, with all the conflicts that set-up suggests, McKinty had just about abandoned writing. Then comes The Chain, and, while I loved the Belfast books, the premise here is a stretch. On audio, the narrator, January LaVoy, beautifully conveys the fear experienced by frantic parents whose children have been ensnared by The Chain. They cannot get them back without paying a ransom and kidnapping someone else’s child. It’s diabolical, but is it even a bit believable? Hoping he’s back on a roll.

Photos: India (Mario Lapid), Trojan Horse (Ian Scott), creative commons license.

NETFLIX: Unbelievable

This Friday, September 13, Netflix begins its eight-episode mini-series Unbelievable based on a fascinating true crime story (trailer). Journalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on how different police departments handled the uncertainties and ambiguities that arise in rape cases. And, in the book, they go into the long, sorry history of why women are so readily disbelieved.

Created and executive produced by screenwriter Susannah Grant, with novelists Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, the series stars Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, and Kaitlyn Dever.

Miller and Armstrong found they still had more to say about the contrasting investigative approaches—one, involving a case that takes place near Seattle where a young woman’s story was disbelieved, and others, in the Denver suburbs, where police went to extraordinary lengths to tie together their investigations with those of other local departments. The authors report what they learned in the new book Unbelievable, an excellent, real-life police procedural.

Read my full review on CrimeFictionLover.com, see the mini-series, or read the book!

****Swann’s Down

Written by Charles Salzberg – Henry Swann’s Manhattan business is a murky one that only a big city, with all its ragged fringes, could support. He’s mainly a skip tracer, someone whose true skill is in finding people and sometimes things—lost, runaway, hiding—and a good guide to the dark corners that would never appear in a tourist’s Top Ten.

His self-described partner Goldblatt is loud and unpredictable, and Swann would prefer not to be saddled with him, but he’s harder to get rid of than a bad memory. How little he actually knows about Goldblatt becomes clear when the man asks Swann for help with a personal problem involving Goldblatt’s second wife, Rachel: “You… You’ve been married?” Three times, in fact.

Rachel is a little spacey, a little too trusting, and a fake psychic has bilked her out of some $75,000. Goldblatt wants Swann to find this psychic. And get the money back, if he can. Delving into the world of the con, Swann interacts with some real New York characters, brimming with a lively mix of attitude, insights, and venality.

Thankfully, a paying client turns up as well. Swann is asked to find a missing witness who supposedly can alibi her truculent boyfriend, Nicky Diamond, a notorious hitman who claims he’s innocent in this case. He’s bad news and Swann is reluctant to help him out.

Why did the girlfriend disappear? Does whoever actually did the killing want Diamond to take the fall? Did Diamond encourage (or frighten) her into disappearing because she actually can’t back up his story? When Swann finds her, will it be wise to encourage her to return to New York, or will he just make her a target? If she fled because she was afraid, would she return at all? The case is full of such quandaries, but Diamond’s lawyer finally talks Swann into pursuing it, and Swann applies one of his guiding principles to the decision: “Okay. I’m in. So long as I get paid, what do I care?”

Swann has to use his considerable persuasive powers to move these two cases in the direction of resolution, even if his remit is not to follow them to their absolute end. His self-deprecating narration and wry humor are charming, his descriptions of the daily frustrations of living in Manhattan hit home, and the issues that raise Swann’s curiosity interested me too.

Author Salzberg is a former magazine writer with both non-fiction and crime fiction to his credit. He’s a founding member of the New York Writers Workshop and has had a successful teaching career. This is the fifth Swann book—and Salzberg says the last. Whether he can really leave Swann behind or not, I’ll be on the lookout for those previous four books!

Photo: krazydad / jbum is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

****Grab a Snake by the Tail

By Leonardo Padura, translated by Peter Bush — For decades, glimpses into Cuban life were hard to come by, and for Americans will be harder to come by again with renewed travel restrictions. English-language crime fiction about contemporary Cuba, written by Cubans, also has been sparse, despite reader curiosity about a tropical culture with such a heady mix of Caribbean, Spanish, African, and Indian influences.

Leonardo Padura, whom the book jacket calls “Cuba’s most celebrated living author,” is the author of the Havana Quartet, crime novels that in their English versions each have a color in the title: Havana Gold, Havana Blue, Havana Red and Havana Black. Spanish-language television films were created from them, and they appeared on Netflix with English subtitles as Four Seasons in Havana. This police procedural follows the protagonist of those popular earlier works, police inspector Mario Conde, as he reminisces about a murder investigation from 30 years ago in Havana’s Barrio Chino (Chinatown).

Cuba’s significant Chinese community immigrated to the island under contracts that amounted to slave labor, and which led to the atmosphere of loneliness, contempt, and uprooting that forms the backdrop to the narrative and sets the stage for murder. Even in a culture where diverse racial and ethnic identities are a commonplace, the dirty, poverty-ridden Barrio Chino is considered mysterious and alien to most Havana residents.

Conde is persuaded to look into the murder by a beautiful African-Chinese police lieutenant Patricia Chion, about whom Conde has impure thoughts. Patricia tells him to engage her father, Juan, as his guide through the barrio’s labyrinthine streets and cultural ways. That’s because, as Conde says, “There were complications, as there almost always are in situations involving a chino.” (So evocative of the last line of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”)

Patricia explains that the dead man, Pedro Cuang, was a friend of her godfather and an acquaintance of her father, even though her father denies knowing him. That would be one of the complications.

Cuang was a retired dry cleaner, no family, living alone on a pension in a dingy one-room apartment. Conde visits that apartment, where the corpse has yet to be removed. He and his sergeant Manuel Palacios see the 73-year-old has been hanged, with a couple of peculiar flourishes: a severed index finger and a circle with two crossed arrows inside carved on his chest.

Crime was rampant in the Barrio Chino, but what Cuang’s link to it may have been is murky. As is the meaning of the strange symbols. In Havana, there are lots of possibilities: a Congolese practice called nganga, Yoruba santaria, voodoo, or some heretofore unknown Chinese witchcraft. Investigating these possibilities and their practitioners gives Padura an excuse to delve into them a bit. These interesting diversions into cultural anthropology aren’t distractions from the main thrust of the story. It needs them to move forward.

Grab a Snake by the Tail is short book that employs a somewhat literary style, appropriate for a cop who wants to be a writer. The translation seems good – you aren’t frequently reminded of it, at least. The characters, especially Conde, his aide Manuel, and his unofficial deputy, Juan Chion, engage in lively interplay. There’s some sex. You never have the sense detective Conde is in any serious, thriller-style danger. It’s more that you’re following him around a fascinating town trying to avoid the complications—criminal, female and cultural.

Photo: dimitrisvetsikas1969 from Pixabay.

****The Bulldog and the Helix

Double helix

By Shayne Morrow – This fascinating true crime story by a former newspaper reporter is set in Port Alberni, a small town on Vancouver Island, the 12,000 square mile island across the Strait of Georgia from the city of Vancouver, British Columbia. Two tragedies from this tiny town tested the limits of DNA technology and forensic practice.

In 1977, Carolyn Lee, age twelve, was abducted as she walked to her parents’ restaurant after dance class. Her body was found the next day in a remote area, face down in the mud. While the police had a strong suspicion about who her murderer was, they had no evidence. In 1996, eleven-year-old Jessica States disappeared from a park near her Port Alberni home, and a massive search finally located her battered body, hidden in a nearby ravine under bark torn from a tree. In this case, there initially was no suspect.

While these tragedies were traumatic for the community, what propels them into salience for the wider world is how they demonstrate advances in forensic analysis. In the almost 20 years between these murders, DNA technology arrived. Morrow effectively details how not just the science improved dramatically during that period, but law enforcement procedures evolved, and legal requirements related to collecting DNA evidence changed. He describes a justice system constructed of moving parts. One mistake by the police and an entire case could be dismissed.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have a practice of moving officers around, much like itinerant preachers, so the officers who first worked on the Lee case had long been reassigned. Yet it wasn’t forgotten, and the RCMP hoped the new DNA analysis would finally solve it. Miraculously, some of the evidence had been saved from that two decade old crime and from which DNA could be extracted. The tenacity and careful work of the officers dedicated to solving this cold case—the investigative Bulldog of the title—that finally led to a conviction in 1998. Fortunately for the States family, justice was not so long delayed, and her killer was convicted in 2001.

These two cases were landmarks in Canadian jurisprudence regarding the treatment of forensic DNA evidence, and author Morrow was the primary court and crime reporter for them both. His meticulous retelling of the RCMP decision-making process—which, although it could have gone off the rails at any number of points, led to a successful prosecution of two killers—is as much a page-turner as any novel.

Graphic: Mehmet Pinarci, creative commons license

Snatching Summer Reading Time

reading, beach

Planning a relaxing time at the shore, interspersed with a few (or more) restorative naps? You need a book! But not War and Peace, however strong your guilt that you’ve never read it. Perfect solution? Short stories. Three recent collections (plus two of mine).

****Exit Wounds, edited by Paul B. Kane and Marie O’Regan – The cover featuring names of some of today’s best-selling crime fiction authors—Lee Child, Val McDermid, Dean Koontz, Mark Billingham and more—signals good reading ahead. Highlights:

  • From the Department of Clever Twists comes Jeffrey Deaver’s story of the bullying of a suspect in a string of serial killings and Sarah Hilary’s The Pitcher, in which a journalist visits an obscure Spanish taverna and smacks into the unexpected.
  • The opening line of Fiona Cummins’s Dead Weight—“You’re not going to eat that, are you?”—says all you need to know about these mother-daughter duelists.
  • There’s an Edgar Allan Poe vibe to On the Anatomization of an Unknown Man (1637) by Dublin author John Connolly. Take My Hand by A K Benedict involves something Poe would have loved, a Hand of Glory. If you don’t know what that is, Google it. A sure-fire conversation-stopper.
  • Dennis Lehane seems to be channeling Raymond Chandler in this line from The Consumers: “When she let (her hair) fall naturally, with its tousled waves and anarchic curls, she looked like a wet dream sent to douse a five-alarm fire.”
  • In Paul Finch’s The New Lad, a brand new policeman is assigned to watch a crime scene overnight. Alone. Outside a derelict mental hospital. In the woods. Excruciating tension!

The Akashic collection ****Milwaukee Noir, edited by Tim Hennessy, reflects the challenges of a city undergoing a rocky transition away from heavy industry and the challenges and changes that result. As horror writer Peter Straub says about his home town (Millhaven in his books), “What happened to the Millhaven where a guy could go out for a beer an’ bratwurst without stumbling over a severed head?” The collection includes stories by Reed Farrel Coleman, and Nick Petrie, but they’re not the only reason to pick up this collection. Two of my favorites were:

  • Runoff by Valerie Laken. An adventuresome trio of teens exploring the pipes under the city finds the unexpected. Perfectly captures the equivocation and fearlessness of youth.
  • Transit Complaint Box by Frank Wheeler, Jr. A jaded transit security officer and his probationer ride the city’s bus routes, solving some problems, preventing others, and generally filling in for our tattered mental health system. Heartwarming and chilling, rewarding and dangerous in equal proportions.

**A Time for Violence: Stories with an Edge, edited by Andy Rausch and Chris Roy. If you want stories of murder and mayhem, this collection is for you. The editors’ intent was to inspire “edgy and transgressive” material. In this, they succeeded. One story, Rausch says, “is neither crime nor horror by standard definitions, and yet it’s the worst of both.” I couldn’t finish it. It wasn’t the only one. Past a certain point of gruesomeness, I lose interest.

Still, I chuckled at Santa at the Café by Joe R Lansdale, which proves, once again, there’s no honor among thieves. Max Allan Collins’s Guest Service: A Quarry Story demonstrates an ideal way to get rid of a troublesome spouse. Elements of a police procedural make Manner of Death: Homicide by Peter Leonard fun and funny too, with its inclusion of the kind of banter prevalent among fictional cops and ex-cops. And, I loved the promise of later hijinks in Andrew Nette’s Ladies Day at the Olympia Car Wash, when the clean-up of a glamorous gal’s trunk provides clues to homicide.

Murder, of course, and betrayals by friends and family run through the whole collection like the bass line of a death march. So, if you like your stories extra-dark, you’ll find much to like here.

* * *

After the foregoing, my two stories published in June only prove how vast is the crime/mystery/thriller terrain. They’re both in great company in their respective publications with other excellent stories:

  • In Who They Are Now, an aging sportscaster is murdered under cover of a Florida hurricane. Is someone after his priceless collection of baseball memorabilia? The Delray Beach police are on the case, with help from a no-longer-young Hollywood star. It’s one of 21 tales in The Best Laid Plans, edited by Judy Penz Sheluk.
  • New Energy describes how a young Japanese-American newspaper reporter in Sweetwater, Texas, investigates a friend’s murder. He was killed by a rattlesnake bite, 30 stories up in a wind turbine cabin. In the Jul-Aug issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, available at your local big box or mystery bookstore.

***The Divinities

By Parker Bilal – With The Divinities, Parker Bilal starts a new police procedural series, involving the potentially interesting duo, Met detective Calil Drake and Iranian-born forensic psychologist Dr. Rayhana Crane.

When a ton of rocks crushes a man and woman at the bottom of a swimming pool under construction in Battersea, Drake is called in, though it’s Crane who wonders whether the avalanche of stone is merely a mechanized form of the ancient punishment of stoning. The link between the two victims is a mystery, and in Drake’s interviews with the victims’ families, he doesn’t ask obvious questions that would have revealed that connection early on.

Although there are a few subtle hints about his mixed-race identity, Calil Drake is called Cal, and the author doesn’t clarify until well along that he had a British mother and Sudanese father or that as a teenager he had embraced Islam. This sheds a very different light on his rocky relationships with other police detectives. His chief makes it clear he has only forty-eight hours before the case will go to the Homicide and Major Crimes Command, where DCI Pryce is itching to put Drake in a bad light. Much is made about this forty-eight hours, yet that time passes without any increase in narrative urgency.

Although Cal and the pair of younger officers who work under him banter amusingly, they have no other style of communication. When every interaction prompts a wisecrack, the device loses something.

A police procedural needs to develop a clear logic chain, and this novel fails to do that at both the larger plot level and within individual conversations. Drake’s reasons for interviewing whom he does, when he does, and the questions he asks all feel very ad hoc. Perhaps that’s due to Drake’s drinking on the job—a crime fiction cliché overdue for retirement. The author says Drake understands the killer’s motivation instinctively, but really, some evidence would help.

Parker Bilal is the pseudonym for literary fiction writer Jamal Mahjoub, himself a mixed-race son of Sudanese and British parents. He’s won prizes for his literary novels and short stories and since 2012, as Parker Bilal, he’s written seven crime novels. Yet, mysteriously, the literary flourishes that frequently crop up in crime fiction do not appear here. You may want to like these interesting lead characters. Now if only future stories do them justice.

Photo: Fredrik Alpstedt, creative commons license