Exploring the character of place

Location, location, location. The mantra isn’t just for real estate agents. Writers have long known that a place works better as character than background. NPR does, too, which makes the radio program “Crime in the City” a delight for tourists of murder and mayhem.

The series features well-known authors and their beats—George Pelecanos’ Washington, D.C., Walter Mosley’s L.A.—as well as writers exploring smaller venues—Archer Mayor and Brattleboro, Vt., Julia Keller’s fictional town in West Virginia.

“Crime in the City” also gives armchair detectives a travelogue of international venues—Mary Lou Longworth in Aix-en-Provence, Ann Cleeves in the Shetland Islands, Richard Crompton in Nairobi, Paco Ignacio Taibo II in Mexico City.

Big or small, noisy or quiet, home or abroad, these locales illuminate both the authors and their characters in unexpected ways.

NPR’s correspondents intersperse the ambient sound of streets and cafes with the voices of police, shopkeepers and the writers themselves. As the sun becomes a distant memory in North America, the summer series offers armchair travelers a glimpse of the often superheated habitat of their favorite novelists. (In addition to the live broadcasts, the programs are available on the NPR website as downloadable MP3 files.)

As a reader or writer, what role do you think place can play in crime fiction?

NPR Crime in City Byzantine monument

Changing the view of black and blue

A police officer shoots an unarmed civilian. A criminal assassinates a deputy. People march, riot, while others call for peace. Across a widening divide, battle lines form. Black Lives Matter. Blue Lives Matter. In the middle, a sheriff suggests that all lives matter.

America is coming apart. America is coming together. The people we hire to protect us attack and are themselves attacked. Support erodes. Doubts replace trust. In an increasingly hostile environment, what can law enforcement do to help society regain its balance?

It can show the public how policing works, the dangers, the challenges, the limitations officers face. Two agencies in Sarasota County do that, the Sarasota Sheriff’s Office through its Citizens Law Enforcement Academy and the Sarasota Police Department through its Citizens’ Academy. I’ve attended both, riding with officers, conducting mock investigations, standing in the use-of-force simulator with a gun,  a TASER and the feeling that life has spun out of control.

It’s an issue all of America faces, one that prompted me to write a book about the experience. The book is called Riding with the Blues, Behind the Badge with the Sarasota Police Department. It’s an attempt to find out what law enforcement does when the cameras aren’t rolling. Here’s the first chapter:

Chapter 1: Simulated Fear
My partner and I sweep into the office building, weapons held in firing position, stomachs bouncing like trampolines. There’s an active shooter in the building. People move in and out of the frame, a jumble of corridors and desks, the wounded lying on the floor, workers, police officers, some calling for help. We have no time.

Riding with the BluesA tall man with shoulders rounding a white polo shirt crosses between several desks and turns into an office. He raises his arm and fires. We edge closer. As the man backs out of the office he spots us and, half-turned, starts to raise his pistol. My partner and I yell “Police! Drop the weapon!” but he doesn’t and we fire, hitting him several times. As he goes down, silence crowds the air, and as we inch forward, a dark figure climbs from behind a desk.

Is he a shooter, a victim, a hostage? Is he armed? We’ve been briefed about the law, how shooting unarmed civilians can land us in jail, how hesitating may get us killed. As the man rises, we have a nanosecond to make a decision.

We freeze. He’s too far away to see his eyes but he’s got something in his hand, and we’re in the open, nothing between us but raw space. Crawling around the side of the desk, crouching in the corridor, the man raises a handgun and starts shooting. We return fire until he collapses. I have no idea if we’re hit, just that he’s not moving.

The officer behind the computer freezes the frame. On a screen larger than the biggest home theater, crosshairs dot the shooter’s chest, marking the places where we’ve landed rounds. As the adrenalin cools, we come back to a different reality.

In the dim light, everything looks gray, the walls, the carpet, even the screen. We’re standing in a classroom on the third floor of the Sarasota Police Department (SPD) in Sarasota, Florida, experiencing the use-of-force simulator as dozens of rookie officers have over the years. Only we’re not recruits. We are civilians enrolled in the SPD’s Citizens’ Academy, a twelve-week program designed to reveal the realities of police work and the people who live in the often closed world behind the badge.

The simulator is a humbling experience. It pinpoints our lack of training and resolve. It highlights the violence of our culture, and the risks that officers and civilians face in any encounter. This is the dark half of policing, the part we see in movies and on TV, always from the spectator side of the camera, the focus on how the situation looks, not how it feels. As we turn in our weapons and return to class, I recall the shooting of civilians by police in Ferguson, Baltimore, South Carolina. I think back to the first session of the Citizens’ Academy and the chief’s talk about community policing, the part about cooperation and understanding, about winning the hearts and minds of the citizens, and I wonder how the two halves fit.

Summing up summaries

Writing the book was easy. Writing the synopsis was a bear.

You’d think that, after investing the better part of a year in my characters, I could crank out a summary as easily as ordering at McDonald’s. Not so for Peak Season, the first in a series of crime novels featuring the former cop turned pacifist Candace McCoy, known to her friends as CW.

Peak Season 3D cover 375x548Even after writing headlines at a daily newspaper for 14 years, I couldn’t distill the essence of the book. Should I focus the synopsis on the plot? On the characters? What if the plot arcs like a roller coaster, and the characters reject their labels? Fanciful but not helpful. Agents want to read a clear, concise summary of the book. They won’t appreciate digression.

I went at it draft after draft, pulling a few characters and themes from the wreckage. Eventually the copy wound up on the back cover of the novel. Here’s the synopsis. I’d be interested in hearing what you think. You can reach me through the comments section or the email link on the bottom of the website’s homepage.

Peak Season synopsis
Life at the beach can be murder.

Forced to shoot a fellow police officer, CW McCoy surrenders her gun and her badge to take refuge in the wealthy tourist mecca of Spanish Point, Florida. There she pedals luxury real estate, cares for her ailing grandfather Pap and tries to escape her past.

But even in paradise during peak tourist season, violence finds her like a divining rod.

Declared dead by the courts, Bobby Lee Darby bursts into CW’s office to demand the family friend clear his name in a scheme to bilk millions from investors. When CW refuses, the fugitive financier kidnaps Pap to ensure her cooperation, triggering a chain of burglary, assault and murder that convinces local police that the former cop has gone rogue.

Racing to find Darby, CW must confront her violent past, risky affairs and love-hate relationship with Southwest Florida before those personal demons turn her new-found paradise into hell on earth.

Inside the yellow tape

The phone rings at 2 a.m. Dispatch reports two unresponsive adults in a car in a parking garage next to Kari’s Restaurant. Officers have secured the scene. Detectives from the Criminal Investigation Division, or CID, are on the way. As part of the Criminalistics Unit, so are we.

Our team walks into the parking garage to find a gold Prius surrounded encircled in yellow crime-scene tape, a bottle of Corona a few feet from the car, liquid spilling from the bottle. On the deck, a plastic sandwich bag and what looks like a candy wrapper.

In the front seats, a man and woman in their late twenties or early thirties, the driver holding a gun. He’s wearing a black short-sleeved athletic shirt, black pants, ring, no watch. He’s been shot once in the right temple. She’s wearing a white short-sleeved shirt with khaki pants, a ring and a watch. She’s been shot once in the left temple.

A shell casing rests on the dash, another on the back seat, a Super Vel .44 Mag. Two bottles of insect repellant in the seat pocket. Papers in the trunk.

Tunnel vision
As we crawl around the car, the head of the unit, Kari McVaugh, says, “Don’t get tunnel vision. Don’t get focused on the yellow tape.”

So begins the scenario created by the Sarasota Police Department for week seven of its Citizens Academy, the program that runs residents through the same training as police officers. The bodies in the car are real, officers within the department, but they’re acting, allowing us to collect and analyze evidence like our civilian counterparts in the real Criminalistics unit.

Kari the suspect in the interview room

Kari the suspect in the interview room

Back at headquarters, we review surveillance footage from the garage and video of two interviews with the department’s prime suspect, the owner of Kari’s bar, played with magnificent realism by McVaugh. As we watch, Sgt. Tom Shanafelt of the department’s Major Crimes Unit tell us what to observe, what to doubt and what would happen if we worked in CID.

We would run the tag and compare a license photo with the deceased–turns out he’s Kari’s ex-husband. Surveillance video shows Kari helping both victims to the car, wiping her hands on a towel as she walks away. We would ask experts to analyze body fluids, fluids on the towel, tool markings on the shell casings.

Truth or consequences
Months later during a second interview, two detectives have suspect Kari wedged in a corner of a bare room. The first thing they do is read her Miranda rights. Then they present DNA evidence that contradicts her initial statement. She’s confrontational at first, telling detectives her medical history is none of their business. She backs up, fidgets, stares at her hands. She’s confused. She doesn’t understand why the DNA evidence should matter.

Finally, she confesses, ending her monologue with, “I guess I just snapped.” Detectives charge and cuff her.

While the confession solves the case, the collection and analysis of evidence wins it, every careful step from autopsy to interview. Or as Shanafelt puts it, “The next-best thing to a confession is a provable lie.”

Next: dealing with the public.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

 

Citizens Academy participants investigate a mock shooting in a parking garage

Citizens Academy participants investigate a mock shooting in a parking garage

Beyond the badge: citizens get inside look at department through Sarasota police academy

One of the first things Bernadette DiPino did when taking over as chief of the Sarasota Police Department was to ban her 161 officers from eating doughnuts while in uniform.

Members of the Sarasota Police Citizen’s Academy chuckled at her story but the chief has a serious purpose: she wants to counter stereotypes about officers as part of a larger campaign of community policing.

And that’s one of the reasons why 23 of us were admitted to the fourth offering of the academy, a boot camp for civilians who want to learn what it’s like to work as a police officer. The 12-week program will cover everything from search and seizure to criminalistics to firearms.

After introducing her command staff—Acting Deputy Chief Pat Robinson and Patrol Operations Chief Kevin Stiff—and Training Officer Jeffrey Dunn, DiPino opened the academy with a recital of her background. As the granddaughter and daughter of police officers, she’s a blueblood and proud of it, starting her career in Baltimore County, working as a narcotics detective and serving as chief in Ocean City, MD before assuming the position of chief in Sarasota at the end of 2012.

She talked about the challenges of a job in a seasonal resort town as well as her mandate to officers to stay visible, strictly enforce the law and appear professional at all times. Which is what led to the ban on doughnuts. But she spent most of the time discussing her philosophy of community policing. Because police need cooperative citizens to prevent and solve crime, they need to build trust and relationships with the residents on their beat. Officers need to get out of their cars and go door-to-door if necessary to introduce themselves and provide help.

As an example of that outreach, DiPino offered a barbecue police held for residents of Newtown. She said the strategy has led to numerous arrests and, more importantly, safer neighborhoods.

It didn’t take long for Dunn as the academy’s chief organizer to transition from strategic to tactical. He introduced bicycle patrol Officer Jerry Pucci, who illustrated DiPino’s goal of standardizing police uniforms for greater visibility. He reviewed dress and patrol uniforms for summer and winter and ticked off the 20 pounds of equipment officers carry on their duty belts: gun (.40 caliber Glock 22), two magazines, handcuff case, Taser, radio and flashlight.

Pucci drew the biggest laugh of the night when he pointed to a short black cylinder on the back of his belt and announced, “This is my ASP.” For the record, ASP is a brand of telescoping baton police can use in close combat.

Despite the laughter, Pucci didn’t miss a beat, saying police didn’t have much cause to use the defensive weapon. “If something goes sideways, I’d rather use the Taser.”

Keep that in mind if you’re tempted to eat a doughnut.

Next week: how crime endangers both victims and police.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino

Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino

Pulp Fiction: On the Bayfront

They skulked into my office like Dodger fans the day Bobby Thomson hit the shot heard ’round the world. Guy and his frail, both pulling faces. The mug must have lifted weights in his sleep. The dame had killer legs and a top that couldn’t contain her enthusiasm.

Neither could I.

“You Doyle?” muscles said, his voice tight as a dog collar.

I checked the black letters on the door. “Can Judy Garland sing?”

Popeye mouthed a cigarette. Tough baby.

“Take a load off,” I said, and we did the introductions. Dutch Malone worked the Navy Yard. Helga Nordmann worked on me. Her blue eyes could cut glass. Two kids squatting in a cold-water walkup in Bay Ridge. Out of money and out of luck.

Helga cracked her gum. “We got trouble.”

“So does Korea,” I said.

“Somebody’s trying to kill me.”

I smiled. “Now that’s a crime.”

Jeff Widmer

You can see this entry in the New York Times pulp fiction contest at this link.

The secret life of writers

For many authors, the secret to the thriller is a secret.

In Karin Slaughter’s novel Fractured, Will Trent tells no one except two confidants about his dyslexia. The special agent for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation strives to prevent people from using his disability to compromise his career. He suffers. The writing doesn’t.

In Harlen Coben’s The Woods, prosecutor Paul Copeland tries to keep secret his connection to the crime he’s compelled to investigate. As with Trent, backstory becomes backlash. His adversaries use that secret as a weapon. Coben treats it as an accelerant.

Both authors use that creative tension to drive their characters, and their stories.

How far would you go to hid something from your past?