Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Priceless Resource

Crime fiction writers have resources available to us now our literary ancestors could not have imagined. The Internet. Citizen police academies, where writers can get a taste of police work from the inside. A couple of hundred cable channels competing to see who can show the down and dirtiest true crime stories. Another couple of hundred channels for movies, including some devoted entirely to crime flicks. TiVo and DVRs so you can watch whenever you want. NetFlix. All of these are great; we've all used them. Still, for anyone who wants to know what law enforcement is like, not cleaned up or sanitized, nor sensationalized, there are only two words you need to remember.

Connie Fletcher.

A journalism professor at Loyola of Chicago, Fletcher has written five books on police work and criminal investigations. So have a lot of people. Fletcher's gift is her willingness to step back and let the cops tell their stories. Literally. She gets groups of cops together in small groups in a restaurant or coffee shop and lets them talk. No one bullshits her; his peers will call him on it. Then Fletcher takes the best stories, the ones that give the most well-rounded picture of what it's like to be a cop in the cops' own words, and prints them up. It's so simple it's brilliant.

The first book, What Cops Know, covered the street, violent crimes, sex crimes, narcotics, property crimes, and organized crime from the perspective of 125 Chicago police officers. It's sequel, Pure Cop, stayed in Chicago and discussed the bomb squad, arson, prostitution, crime scene investigations (well before anyone thought of CSI), major accidents (which are treated as crime scenes in Chicago; remember that the next time you're wondering why it's taking so long to clear an intersection. They have to be sure it really was an accident), hostage/barricade incidents, and another look at the street.

Then she branched out to explore the challenges faced by female officers, rounding up cops nationally for Breaking and Entering. In 2006 Fletcher addressed the explosive growth in crime scene interest with Every Contact Leaves a Trace. This year's entry is Crime Scene: Inside the World of the Real CSIs. All are presented with the same unvarnished truthfulness; all are full of fascinating vignettes that run from one paragraph to three pages, tales of things that really happened, told by a profession that ranks among America's leading raconteurs: cops.

You'll learn things you never realized you didn’t know, or that there was such an area of expertise. You'll read of horrible things, told so matter of factly they'll seem even more horrible once you realize what you've just been told, and that this person—you won't think of them as cops, they're people—sees and deals with every day. And you'll laugh. Some of the stories are genuinely funny, and some are the graveyard humor of someone coping with the unforgettable.

Probably the most intriguing thing I learned that I hadn't realized I didn't know came in What Cops Know. What television show best captures what it's like to be a cop? (This was 1990, so The Wire, Homicide, and NYPD Blue had yet to make appearances.) Hill Street Blues had just finished its award winning run. Dragnet was long since an icon. Adam-12 had shown life in a patrol car. What show did the cops pick as most accurately showing what their jobs were like?

Barney Miller.

You gotta love that.

1 comment:

Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, I do love it. I suppose she noted the amount of time the characters in Barney Miller spent sitting around talking.

Show like Hill Street Blues and, I'm guessing The Wire as well, are realistic the same way a Greek tragedy is realistic. They sharpen the focus on the dramatic while cutting out everything else. It works, but life sure doesn't look like that.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"