It occurred to me today that, if you count my forthcoming novel, I currently have three projects in the works with cops as major characters. I have no idea how that happened.
Well, I do. I think I’ve always been in awe of people who work in professions that I admire but could never do myself. That, and I had a friend in elementary school whose father was NYPD, and I remember thinking how cool that was. (And, thinking about it now, he would have been a cop in New York City in the 80s, which must have been horrific. For some perspective, it was reported recently that 2009 had the fewest murders in NYC since the city started keeping statistics. There were 461. According to one of my reference books [New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg] there were 1,384 murders in 1985.)
I’ve always loved mysteries, and police procedurals in particular, probably because I’m a nerd and I like detail and minutiae. Even during the period of my life that I thought I was too good to read romance novels (such delusions!), mystery novels were my genre fiction vice. And for years, I watched a lot of cop shows on TV, especially Law and Order.
I had one encounter with an NYPD homicide detective a few years ago that was not in any way like TV. I was living in Manhattan at the time (so this was probably 2005-ish, if you need some context.) I came home after a long day at work and was somewhat alarmed to see that my whole block had been sectioned off with police tape. The uniformed cops hanging around let me go into my building, though, and it looked like the operation was winding down. I was curious, but didn’t think much of it.
At the time, I was living by myself in a small apartment on the first floor of a large apartment building, one of only two on the block. My bedroom window faced the street. Although I had both heavy curtains and bars on the windows, I guess if I really wanted to, I could have seen everything going on outside.
About ten minutes after I got into my apartment, there was a knock at the door. I answered, and was met by a late-30s-ish guy in a green tee-shirt and jeans, with a police badge hanging around his neck on a chain. He introduced himself as a homicide detective from “the Three-Four.” My first thought was, “Shouldn’t you be wearing a suit?” I mean, homicide detectives on TV always wear suits, right? Anyway, the detective asked me if I’d seen anything, so I told him I’d just gotten home from work and had no idea what was going on. I didn’t ask him what the deal was, either, because I’d seen a lot of cop shows; homicide detectives are always cagey and can’t tell you anything. Although maybe that caginess went only comes with the suit, because the detective then proceeded to tell me everything: there’d been a drive-by shooting on the block. The detective thought it was drug-related, and they’d determined that the shooter knew the victim. (This only made me feel mildly better. I knew there was a fair amount of drug activity in the neighborhood, but out of sight, out of mind. I lived on a major cross-street with a lot of business and consoled myself with the fact that, even if I didn’t live in the safest neighborhood, the trip between the subway and my apartment was well-lit. Although I had nightmares for a few nights after this incident about stray bullets coming in through my bedroom window.) Anyway, the kid who got shot was okay, he’d already been taken to the hospital. And the detective just… told me all of this without my even asking. I really think I would have been better off not knowing, frankly.
That’s an anticlimactic story, I know, but the point is that, um, I was interviewed as part of a homicide investigation that one time. Which is almost as cool as the fact that I have an actor friend who played a witness on an episode of Law & Order, which is maybe only cool to me. Every actor in New York has had at least a bit part on that show. (Not to mention the fact that an episode of Criminal Intent was filmed on the very same block where that drive-by shooting take place, but before the shooting, IIRC. And I tried to sneak onto the set of an episode of L&O filming in Prospect Park once, but the director figured out I was not an official extra and yelled at me. And another episode was spoiled for me because I knew SVU had been filming near Grand Army Plaza—which is right near my apartment in Brooklyn; I walk through it every morning on the way to work—and Detective Benson got some clue about archways, but it wasn’t the Washington Square Arch, and I sat on my couch and shouted, “Grand Army Plaza! Grand Army Plaza!” and lo, the victim was found in Brooklyn.)
I have a character in one of my WIPs who is a mystery writer who finds himself tangled up in a homicide investigation, and although he writes really gruesome things, crime scenes make him nauseous. That’s about where I’m at, I think. I have a lot of respect for cops, I’m fascinated by police procedure, but I’m content to write about it instead of experience it for real.