Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Lunch with a homicide detective

At the back of any thriller or crime novel, on the acknowledgements page, the author always says, "I'd like to thank Detective Frank Drapo of the NYPD Special Victims Unit for telling me everything I've ever wanted to know about murder and forensics, and for letting me ride along in his police car and even shoot someone. All the bloody details are his; all mistakes are mine alone." Or something like that. 

Nearly every thriller novel involves a law enforcement agency at some point, and every author worth his blood spatter needs a knowledgeable, trusted police contact to help him get the details right. But I've always wondered, how do authors get these contacts? I mean, it's probably not too difficult if you're Michael Connelly or Dennis Lehane. But what about a no-name unpublished author? Do you just call up the police station and ask if anyone feels like reading your manuscript? 

During the process of writing Double-blind, I tried to establish contact with two people at the FDA (one of whom I actually spent a week with during an audit) and neither of them would help me. Although I did have some productive meetings with a rheumatologist -- to learn more about lupus -- but that's only because this doctor and I happened to work at the same company. With the police, I had no connection whatsoever. Until now. 

As with most things in writing, my police connection came fortuitously.While waiting in line to pitch agents at the San Francisco Writers Conference, I met a wonderful lady who was writing historical fiction. When I told her what I was writing, she said, "My husband would probably like to talk to you. He's writing a book that involves the pharmaceutical industry. Oh, and he might be able to help you, too. He's a retried LAPD homicide detective." Um, yeah. 

I never did meet the detective at the conference, but after staying in contact with him and his wife for a few months, I finally met him for lunch last weekend. I'll call him Mack, which isn't his real name. And I won't reveal too much about him. He's kind of private about his online profile. Not because, like the rest of us, he doesn't want unflattering photos of himself on Facebook, but because there are people out there who may want to KILL HIM. Also, he reads my blog, and he doesn't seem like the kind of guy you want on your bad side. All that said, he was just the nicest guy. Seriously, if I ever kill someone, I want Mack to be the one to arrest me. 

Mack and I had a fascinating conversation, and he had some incredible stories to tell. What's more, he's happy to help me in the future whenever I have questions about law enforcement. He's willing to read what  I've written and answer the key question: would this actually happen? In turn, I hope I can help Mack with his pharma/biotech questions, and we can both help each other with the writing aspect. Pretty cool, huh?

So Mack will be an invaluable resource for my writing. But he's also just fun to talk to. During our lunch, I couldn't help ask a few "cop questions" I've always wondered about:

Are people really that rude to the cops? Whenever you watch Law and Order, a suspect is always saying, "now, if you'll excuse me, detective, I have work to do." And they're usually walking full speed, in the middle of something ostensibly more important than talking to a HOMICIDE DETECTIVE. I don't know about you, but if a detective wanted to talk to me, I'd clear my calendar for a few minutes and try to be as polite as I could muster. Mack said that people are generally cordial, but he has run into the arrogant brush-off many times, especially from doctors and lawyers.

Do detectives really say "we can talk here, or we can talk downtown"? YES! Mack told me he used to say this all the time.

During a police interrogation, after all standard routes have failed, does a detective really come in Elliot Stabler-style and say, "I know why you killed him. I don't blame you. He had it coming, the son of a bitch. If you hadn't done it, I would've killed him myself, after what he did to you." And the suspect blurts out "Yes, he did have it coming -- that's why I killed the bastard!" Again, YES! Mack told me a story about a suspect who passed a lie detector test, but then inadvertently confessed when Mack confronted him later.

Is it true that the tough cases can only be cracked by a jaded, retired detective who's been living alone on a boat and battling his demons? I didn't actually ask this question, but Mack answered it. He was recently pulled out of retirement and hired by a private firm to solve a case that sounds like something out of a blockbuster movie. Although... Mack doesn't live on a boat, and he seems to be a pretty well-adjusted dude. 

And finally, do detectives really notice things that normal humans don't? Again, I didn't ask this question directly, but the answer seems to be Yes.  When we were having lunch, Mack said, "I'm trained to observe, and I notice things." He lowered his voice to a whisper "For example, I know that couple behind us is having marital problems." And I said, "what couple?" And earlier, when I first arrived outside the restaurant, Mack immediately came up to me and said, "you must be Brian." I'd never met him before that moment. Weird. Later, he was telling me how easy it is to put a tracking device on any vehicle. Hmm... I've got to go now.


  1. He probably recognized you because he reads your blog, on which your photo appears. Mason family members could be detectives. We're known by our spouses for the often irritating habit of disengaging from conversations with them in order to evesdrop on more intriguing interactions of adjacent tables.

  2. One of my favorites.

  3. "Seriously, if I ever kill someone, I want Mack to be the one to arrest me."


  4. love that his "name" is Mack :)

  5. Hah! Emilie M....Funny that you say that. If you read my comment on Brian's post from last week, you will see that I recently listened to this podcast...well, read that post comment because I am not going to explain that part again...but they use this example of trying to listen to 2 conversations at once, and again, it is IMPOSSIBLE to do! Fascinating. I always thought I was good at just that (listening to 2 conversations at once), like a good detective. Anyway, this is good stuff Brian. It would be fun to hear more about Mack sometime.

  6. Sounds like a book about Chester and Mack together might be a bestseller! People love these two! You could write from Chester's perspective and title it "Mack and Me." NYT bestseller list, here you come!

  7. That really neat. I had the same idea for a book series I'm writing. I think I'll try your approach towards getting my own personal Mack!!