“Well,” I said, “my novel is about a zombie apocalypse, so if you anticipate us having one of those any time soon, then yeah, I guess we’re going to have a problem.” I trailed off with a shrug. “Otherwise…”
Of course I was just having fun with him. He knew that. But we both got the point, I think. You see, my department has some very specific rules about writing for publication. They don’t want officers compromising tactics and procedures, sure, but just as importantly, they don’t want officers writing about open cases or cases they have worked on in the past.
Why is that, you ask.
Well, there is a public trust involved. Imagine a sexual assault victim finally working up the courage to go in to police headquarters and tell her story to a detective. She bares her story, one of violation and shame and bottomless anger, to this total stranger, trusting that he’s serious about the oath he took to be professional, confidential and honest. But then, the next thing she knows, she reads some salacious version of her story in a magazine or a crime novel.
That’s unacceptable, right?
Sure, we can all agree on that.
And that’s why I’ve always been careful to respect that confidentiality in my fiction. I have never, nor will I ever, write about real life cases in which I have personally taken part. There are far too many great ideas floating around in my head for me to justify parading a real person’s misery across the page. Don’t misunderstand me, now. There is nothing wrong with honest journalism. I’m not saying that. Far from it. Honest, objective journalism compels us to ask questions about our society and what people do within it. That is a good and necessary thing. The ethical issue I’m talking about here is the use of my official position as a police officer to uncover material for my fiction. Imagine a cop coming to your door, under the full color of his office, and asking you a lot of hard questions about the worst thing that ever happened to you so that he could have fodder for a novel. You’d be horrified, right? That is why so many of my articles at In Cold Blog involve historical crimes or contemporary crimes that take place outside of my jurisdiction. I don’t ever intend to violate the trust I’ve been given.
Still, people inevitably ask if my police work doesn’t occasionally bleed over into my fiction…even just a little.
I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. While I don’t ever write in detail about my cases, whether past or present, I have seen a huge amount of freaky stuff as a cop, and sometimes it gives me ideas…
Sex, Drugs and Police Procedure
What I’m about to tell you happened about ten years ago. I was a patrolman back then, working the evening shift on San Antonio’s West Side. At the time, there were a lot of hole in the wall bars up and down Old Highway 90 West, and most of them were hotspots for prostitution and heroin.
Young patrolmen tend to be aggressive; they’re looking to make a name for themselves. As a result, they’re great for directed patrol assignments – give them an objective, such as disrupt prostitution or make drug busts in a certain area, and set them loose.
Those were my instructions on this particular summer night ten years ago.
My partner and I were cruising Old Highway 90 West, looking for heroin dealers. They weren’t especially difficult to spot. We saw plenty, in fact. Plenty of prostitutes, too. You didn’t need any sort of special training. There were so many of them that they had little fear of us. You know how schools of fish swim placidly by great white sharks? The same thing described our situation. We might be able to get one or two, but there was no way we were going to be able to get them all.
Why is that? Well, believe it or not, dumb as most street dealers and hookers are, making a case against them is actually pretty difficult. For the drug dealer, you have to first identify them, then work up probable cause to connect them to the possession and sale of illegal narcotics, and then stop them while they’re in possession of the illegal narcotics. And for hookers, it’s even harder, because there you have to actually witness the offer of sex for money. It’s not enough to see her lean in the window of a car, glance around furtively, then climb in. You have to actually hear the transaction take place for there to be a prosecutable offense.
Of course those cases can be made. They’re made every day, in fact. But they are almost always done by undercover officers. It’s pretty darn hard to do while you’re in full uniform and driving around in a marked patrol car.
And it’s doubly difficult when most of the hookers and the dealers are working inside the bars I told you about earlier. Your best efforts usually amount to little more than entertainment for the nightcrawlers.
So what’s an eager, aggressive, well-intentioned rookie to do?
Yeah, I had no idea either. And neither did my partner.
Frustrated, we stopped a hooker for jaywalking. Sure it was a futile gesture, kind of like shoveling snow in a blizzard, but we did find out she had eleven unpaid traffic tickets – for, you guessed it, jaywalking.
We hooked her up, and as soon as she realized she was going to be arrested, she became extremely eager to cooperate. Not because she was scared of jail, you understand, but because being in jail meant she couldn’t work for the rest of the night, which in turn meant she wouldn’t have money for heroin.
But we weren’t interested in her motivation. What we were interested in was her offer to help us catch a heroin dealer in one of our problem bars nearby. In all likelihood she wanted to help bust that dealer because he’d ripped her off recently, but that didn’t matter a bit to us. We called the Narcotics Unit and told them what we had. They joined us a few blocks away, interviewed the hooker, and confirmed that she had good information.
The detectives talked with a judge, and together they arranged for her unpaid tickets to go away. In exchange, she agreed to go into the bar with a specially marked $20 bill and buy us some heroin. When she came out, she gave us the layout of the bar and a full description of where the dealer kept his dope.
Texas law entitles police to do warrantless bar checks to ensure that liquor laws are followed. Seeing as most of the bars in the area were either Mexican Mafia-owned or controlled, and therefore joined at the hip with the drugs and prostitution going on their premises, a bar check seemed the perfect companion to our move on the drug dealer.
We assembled a team of officers and detectives, and in we went.
A few of us went right for the dealer – he worked out of the hallway that ran in front of the bathrooms in the back and he kept his dope in the gap where the walls almost reached the ceiling – and hooked him up. Others went for the bartender and started checking for liquor law compliance. Everyone else secured the exits and the patrons who tried to scramble out the doors, windows, over the back fence, you name it.
At the time, I remember thinking we had hit the jackpot. According to my old patrol notebooks, we arrested not one, but two, dealers. And their lookout. We seized just shy of 500 grams of Mexican brown tar heroin, all of it individually packaged for sale, and $33,000 in cash – $20 of which was the specially marked bill our hooker used to set the process in motion.
Our bar check turned up more than 60 liquor law violations, enough to have the establishment’s license pulled.
And identifying the bar “patrons” turned up just under a pound of marijuana, a little bit of cocaine, a lot more heroin, some felons in possession of illegal handguns, and enough active warrants to keep us knee-deep in paperwork for the rest of the night.
Not bad for a couple of clueless rookies, right?
Well, yeah, we did do some good. The thing is, though, with experience comes perspective.
I know now that the drugs we got off the street that night amounted to less than one-one thousandth of one percent of the heroin that goes through South Texas every single day.
The cash? An insignificant loss.
The dealers? Their crimes were non-violent in nature, so their bail was chickenfeed. And because they were in the country illegally, it was easy for them to disappear. They spent a little over a day in jail, and unless they’ve been arrested since then for some other crime, have yet to serve any sort of punishment whatsoever.
How about the hooker? Well, she was back on the street that very night.
Oh, and the bar? Well, the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission slapped the owner with a hefty fine and pulled his license, so the owner changed the name of the bar, put the business in his sister’s name, and got a new liquor license the next working day.
So, did any good at all come of this?
Well, yes, in a way.
See, I never forgot how engaged that operation made me feel. Not only was it the kind of early success that builds police careers, but it also served as the key plot point in my first crime novel.
Yeah, that’s right. I write mainly horror fiction. Some crime stories, some science fiction, even some of that socially acceptable stuff the lit snobs call mainstream fiction – but mainly horror fiction. Certainly all of my novel length works have been along those lines.
My monthly columns at In Cold Blog are sort of my treat to myself. As I mentioned at the beginning of this story, I don’t usually let my writing mix with my police work, but I was hoping you Trusted Readers would indulge me just this once and let me tell you about my new crime novel, Dodging Bullets.
Out of the Gutter
A few years back, I published a story called “The Millstone” in a new digest-style crime fiction magazine called Out of the Gutter, edited by Matthew Louis. At the time, I was on a short story craze, cranking out one story after another, and sometimes doing as many as three a week. I was still perfecting my craft at the time – actually, I’m still perfecting my craft even now, and hopefully always will be, but I was kind of rough back then – and the original draft of the story Matt culled from the slush pile was admittedly not my best effort. Matt sent the story back to me with editorial suggestions, and after reading what he wrote, I was shocked. He saw through a lot of the rubble and debris that had blocked my view of what the story was supposed to be, and after making the changes he recommended, the finished product turned into one of my personal favorites.
But something else besides a story sale happened. Matt and I continued to trade correspondence, and over the course of the next few years, became good friends. We knew from the beginning that we both loved crime fiction. But beyond that, we learned that we shared a passion for the great American pulp fiction era, when a dime could get you a hundred pages or so of great reading. I’m talking the pulp magazines of the 30s, 40s and 50s, rags like Black Mask and Spicy Detective Stories and Adventure and Argosy. This was the era that gave birth to such names as Cornell Woolrich and Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and Ray Bradbury and James M. Cain and hundreds of others. Not enough people know how wonderful the pulps really were, but Matt does. He gets it.
And then, about two years ago, Matt told me that he wanted to found his own publishing company. I said, “Yeah, sure – you and everybody else.”
“No, I can do this,” Matt said. “I’ve learned a lot with Out of the Gutter Magazine. And nobody else is doing modern pulp. Not the way it needs to be done, anyway. There’s this huge need, and nobody to fill it. I can really make something good happen here.”
He went on to tell me about his vision for a publishing company called Gutter Books. It would specialize in hardcore hardboiled thrillers – violent, fast-paced novels that reflect the 21st Century experience.
I was intrigued, and after seeing what he had done with Out of the Gutter Magazine, I began to think that, just maybe, he could pull it off. I asked him what his overall vision was. What would Gutter Books bring to the world of crime literature?
“Well,” he said, “I hope as it plays out people will look at our books as both reliable and unpredictable. Reliable in terms of quality and readability. The pedal is down to the floor at all times but nobody’s intelligence is being insulted. The story is plausible, at least according to its internal logic, well-paced, neatly-told, and not cheapened by clichés. And unpredictable in terms of attitude and subject matter. I like the idea of shaking things up. But the trick is, you can’t shake things up unless you do things intelligently.”
Matt is a smart, well-read guy, but he’s just as likely to pull allusions from a Gore Vidal novel as he is a 70s punk band.
“If you’re a fan of old school punk rock,” he said, “you know that a whole lot of it isn’t very listenable. They’re pissed off and have a lot to say, their attitude and general ideas are valid, but they have nearly zero talent, horrible production values, no forethought brought to the whole endeavor. And then you have something like The Record by FEAR, where the artist’s message is as provocative and crass as any punk bands, but the quality is such that it slaps you in the face and makes you pay attention. It’s maybe an odd comparison, but that balance is what I’d like to bring to crime fiction.”
I didn’t think it was odd at all. One of Matt’s co-workers at Out of the Gutter once said that Matt was groping toward a democratization of literature with his editorial vision. I think that’s a great way to describe him. He pulls all these wildly different literary elements together and makes them fit together like an organic whole. “So,” I asked, “would Gutter Books would try to do for novels what Out of the Gutter did for the short story?”
“That would be the starting point,” he said, “but I have no intention of stopping there. Personally, I like to read about things that are rooted in reality as I understand it, and I like it when the author gives me a story, straight up, doesn’t put on airs and jerk me around trying to convince me he (or she) is a genius. This happens most often with crime fiction, but a good story can go way outside of what people tend to think of as crime fiction. It’s a big variable – the idea that anything can happen – that I find exciting, more than a style or an era. I’m not interested in recreating the classic detective novel. I love the classics, but I wasn’t there and I’d feel stupid pretending I was. I’m interested in the raw power, the recklessness and verve, that characterized the best pulp writing. This might be throwing a curve-ball into the discussion, but the pulp tradition I’m interested in really begins, for me at least, with Jack London. Here was this lower class guy, this drifter and hard laborer who, once he infiltrated so-called literature, showed everyone else’s writing to be watered-down crap. Why? Because he took storytelling in directions nobody had thought to, or was able to, before; it was all about violence and survival struggles, and he had the experience to put it in context and the intelligence to sell it. The best writers in the hardboiled school did (and do) more or less the same thing, except with different players and settings. That’s as close as I can come to an answer, because I don’t have a formula in mind. Pulp fiction, as I see it, is the idea that there are no rules except do your best to capture people’s attention and leave them satisfied.”
And then he dropped the bomb on me. He asked me if I’d be interested in writing the first novel for the Gutter Books line. “I like your story ‘Dodging Bullets,’” he said. “That’s the kind of tale I can see becoming a fast-paced, hard-hitting crime novel. What do you think? Do you want to do it?”
He had me hooked.
I said, “You bet your ass I do.”
And that brings me to my first crime novel.
“Dodging Bullets,” the short story, originally started out as a crime story called “The King in Ruins.” It told the story of two homicide detectives who have been friends and partners for many years. The two detectives end up pulling a case involving two dead hookers who have been murdered with shotguns and dumped in the bed of a pickup, which has in turn been left running in the middle of a seedy neighborhood. The case should be a piece of cake. Unfortunately, the partnership is breaking up…as is the friendship. One of the detectives is getting promoted, and has started politicking for his new job in the Department. The investigation holds little interest for him compared to his new prospects, and this leaves the other detective to drudge his way through the investigation all by himself. Routine investigative procedures are mishandled, or skipped altogether, and soon a routine investigation becomes an ugly millstone around the necks of both detectives.
Despite the solid murder mystery frame, and despite the excellent dynamic between the detectives, the story felt crude and generally uninteresting. “The King in Ruins” was a product of my whirlwind short story period, and as such, it was written with more enthusiasm than craftsmanship. But even with all its faults, the story continued to resonant with me. I wanted to rework it, to make it right somehow, but couldn’t find the perfect angle.
And then, finally, it came to me. “The King in Ruins,” I realized, was burdened down by too much police procedure. All the great storytelling elements were getting lost under the details. It was at that point that I realized I needed to tell the story from the standpoint of the bad guys. What had started out as a buddy cop story gone wrong was now the tale of a maniacal midlevel drug dealer named Fernando Laza and his hapless employee Peter “Peto” Hurst. Peto decides he wants out of the business, and it seems to him that ripping off $80,000 from Laza is the way to do it. Of course, things don’t go as planned, and soon the bodies are piling up.
“The King in Ruins” was long and not terribly fun to write. “Dodging Bullets,” on the other hand, was a blast. The new story literally erupted onto the page. I think I finished the first 5,000 word draft in an afternoon. In the new version, the cops all but disappeared, while these two new characters took on a vibrancy that really, and finally, worked. I put the story through another rewrite and sent it off to Matt. He gave one or two minor editorial suggestions, and the next thing you know, it was the cover story for the fourth installment of Out of the Gutter. You can read “Dodging Bullets,” the short story, here.
But then came the challenge of turning a short story into a novel, something I had never done before. In order to make it work, I knew I was going to have give both Peto and Laza deeper struggles, and to do that, I took my cue from one of the greats of crime fiction, John D. MacDonald.
I started with Peto. In the short story, he had only one foe. That made sense, given the length restrictions of the short story. But for a novel, he needed to be pulled in more directions than that. MacDonald always gave us a girl. Throw a leggy beauty into a crime, and suddenly everything else goes out the window. So, Peto got a girlfriend. In walks Shannon Dupree, the wealthy daughter of a Mexican Mafia attorney. After that, things started clicking.
Shannon’s father, you see, has been stealing from the Mexican Mafia for years. He’s built up quite a fortune in the process. Unfortunately for everybody involved, one of his clients, a midlevel Mexican Mafia dealer named Fernando Laza, has somehow gotten his hands on the ledgers that tie Shannon’s father to the missing millions.
Shannon and Peto hatch a simple plan to steal the ledgers back. Things go well, but when they get the bag with the ledgers to Shannon’s apartment, they find not only the missing books, but a large haul of dope and cash to go along with it. Soon Peto is caught between his girlfriend and her father, his dealer, Fernando Laza, and Laza’s supplier in the Mexican Mafia, who will stop at nothing to get the dope back.
But that isn’t all. Peto, you see, has to keep up appearances if he wants to remain alive. And that means selling Fernando Laza’s heroin in a little Mexican Mafia-controlled bar on Old Highway 90 West.
Do you see where this is going?
That’s right. Peto gets busted by a hooker looking to work off eleven unpaid traffic tickets. Next thing you know, Peto is being interviewed by a veteran Narcotics detective. He gives Peto a choice: work off the possession charge by giving us somebody bigger, or go to jail for a very long time.
Peto can’t do either one, so he does what he does best. He presents a third option.
What is it? Well, I won’t tell you that. You’ll have to check out Dodging Bullets, the novel, to learn what happens next.
The book comes out in July, 2010. It will be joined by three other releases – a Best Of anthology from the first six issues of Out of the Gutter called The Baddest of the Bad; On the Make by John D. MacDonald, featuring an introductory essay by Matthew Louis; and The Wrong Man by William Inglsey.
Check them out, won’t you? I think you’ll have a blast with them.