I’m not a good person. Patti offered me this space weeks ago and I’m just now sending something. That’s inexcusable. I started blogging partly because of reading this blog, and her flash fiction challenges tightened my writing considerably. I owe this blog and I owe Patti, and I’m sorry for futzing around.
While my procrastination is inexcusable, there is a reason. The original plan was to write about the fictional town of Penns River, the setting of my police procedural novels. I based the town on three small cities where I grew up, so I know the area and people well. It’s a perfect setting for me.
The problem is that Pushing Water is the fifth Penns River book and, while I’m not anywhere close to running out of story ideas, I am running dry on what to say about the place. There is nothing inherently interesting about Penns River except how it shapes characters best described through their actions. Most of them are cops.
If only there was something topical to say about cops.
I’m not James Ellroy, writing about systemic corruption in a police force. I’ve worked in enough hierarchical organizations to know they all have inherent weaknesses exploitable by those with ill intent. Police departments are special because those exploitations can blossom into matters of life and death in a heartbeat.
I’ve planned for a couple of years to evolve the Penns River police from a close-knit small town department taking its cues from avuncular chief Stan “Stush” Napierkowski into something with a harder edge as the economy remains stagnant, crime became more entrenched, and the department’s personnel turn over.
The degree and intensity of crime has worn down some of the older cops who signed up to serve a far different city. The younger men and women who will replace them trained in 21st Century academies, or honed their craft on far meaner streets. This creates friction with the local population, as people they don’t know and who don’t seem to care as much about them replace cops they’ve known for years.
Penns River cops are the good guys. Flawed, not corrupt. That will evolve, but the core of the department will always have a compass. I have no desire to write them any other way. Several of my acquaintances are, or were, cops. Some have become good friends. None of them—not one—are anything other than fine and fair-minded people. Just as my experiences growing up in “Penns River” precludes me from depicting it as either the South Side of Chicago or Beverly Hills, my personal knowledge of cops prevents me from portraying them as brutal racists. As the current meme says, I am pro cop and against brutality and corruption. The positions are not mutually exclusive.
Are there brutal and bent cops? Absolutely. More than I care to think about and way more than should be wearing badges. The time has come for Penns River to reflect this.
I’m proud of my friendships with law enforcement, several of which came about because they respected how well I captured the life of a cop, even though I have never been one. My most flattering moments as a writer have come when someone with a law enforcement background assumes I have one, as well. They run toward trouble when everyone else runs away, and my cops will always show that.
Just because one runs toward danger doesn’t mean he’s not an asshole. Or a racist. Or bent. Any number of unsavory things. I’d do good cops a disservice if I ignored that. So there will be more of both sides.
The book I really want to write is one I am both qualified and not qualified to write: the effects of the blue wall for good and ill. I understand why it exists, I understand its benefits, and I understand the damage it does by protecting those who are unworthy. I can already hear, “Who’s he to write that? He was never a cop.” Maybe it’s the kind of thing that needs a sympathetic outsider’s perspective. It will have to be well researched and fairly written and it’s at least two books away.
I’m already working on it.