Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Catching Up #39: Officer Down by Theresa Schwegel

I've been hearing about Theresa Schwegel for a good goddamn long fucking time now, but never got around to reading any of her shit. Being the fucking completist obsessive that I am, I naturally started back at the fucking beginning with her debut, Officer Down. Gotta say, dear reader, this is some good shit.

Good cop shit - and you better believe that that is a fucking distinction, dear reader.

Because it's a fucking big deal to write a good police procedural. First off, savvy that I'm talking about shit that isn't about out-and-out corrupt cops, either, hence taking out of this particular canon the works of James Ellroy and Ken Bruen. No sir, I'm talking about normal everyday cops. Kent Anderson did the definitive beat cop novel over a decade ago with Night Dogs, Richard Price has no doubt dropped a bunch of amazing cop characters on us over the years, and John McFetridge has shown himself to have a keen ear for the way cops talk, but who else can really lay claim to their level of awesomeness in the cop genre?

I give you (and you really shoulda guessed this shit by now, dear reader): Theresa Schwegel.

Her cops have full lives that extend beyond the work place, and they don't get all "hot shot" on your ass for no reason, and - best of all - there's no questioning the motives of why the lead cop is working so goddamn hard to crack the fucking case. Time and again - and it's my theory that this is why so few thriller writers successfully write about cops - we see the dogged-fucking-detective busting his ass and using ridiculous detection skills to crack some case because of old psychic scores to settle or some other vague ingrained sense of justice.

In Officer Down, yeah Samantha Mack "takes it personally" and goes against the chief's orders or whatever, but it's just to clear her name, not because she's a slightly down-played superhero or some bullshit like that. And the dialogue feels lived in, not forced or overly cool like an episode of CSI or some other shitty cop show (speaking of CSI, Sam has better digs than her co-workers and more money, but that's because of an inheritance, not like in those shitty shows where they wear two thousand dollar suits and drive seventy-thousand dollar cars - how is that shit possible unless they're totally corrupt or moonlighting like a motherfucker).

But look at the Nerd's ass - talking all about some notion of what Schwegel's goal for writing cops is when you, the reader, have no idea what her fucking book is about (or you do, in which case, you're hip to this shit already and no doubt cooler than the Nerd). Officer Down tells the story of Samantha Mack (a.k.a. "Smack"), a young cop only a few years on the Chicago PD, who manages to get her partner killed while on duty. Scratch that, according to ballistics, Smack herself shot her partner dead. The brass and her fellows boys in blue are willing to call it an accident, but Smack knows that's fucking bullshit, so she uses her suspension time to hunt down the real killers.

Trust the fucking Nerd, dear reader - this shit is not as fucking typical as it sounds.

A major part of that, as I've obviously been fucking saying, is that Schwegel writes cops in a very specific, smart way, but all the good cop dialogue and lore in the world can't save a book that doesn't have solid main character, and Smack is as solid as they fucking come. She's got grit and smarts, but she's also flawed in ways that cost her in numerous ways throughout the story.

But as is often the case with the best thrillers, Schwegel not only has a great central character, but she knows to let Smack lead the action, not some inorganic sense of what a thriller plot should be. It takes a good while for Smack to really be in the shit, but that's fucking great as far as the Nerd is concerned, because Schwegel was busy setting up this character and this world in an authentic, purposeful way. And then when the mystery plot-type shit actually does get really fired up and raging, Schwegel never takes it too far, there are no scenes of "this goes all the way to the mayor" type of fucking bullshit to make you roll your eyes till they fall outta your fucking head.

So let's do a fucking check-list here, dear reader: good character, smart cop shit, not-too-crazy mystery plot...do you really need more? I mean, maybe Schwegel's sitting on some hot stock tips or a fucking recipe for snickerdoodles, but it wouldn't have fit in with the story...


Unknown said...

What amazes me is the amount of research and effort Ms. Schwegel puts into her novels. Officer Down's an amazing debut and she almost has a Leonard-esque ear for dialog. Good shit.

Unknown said...

I'm hardly an uninterested party--TS is an old and good friend of mine--but I have to agree with your placing her alongside Price and Anderson. I'm just finishing the newest book, "Last Known Address," and finding myself amazed that each book is a bit better than the last, no small trick when book one was already brilliant.

Scott Phillips

PokerBen said...

Great review as always.

Did notice one thing when I was adding the books and authors to my TBR pile,(like I always do)that it's Kent Anderson, not Kurt, that you mentioned wrote "Night Dogs".

CrimeNerd said...

Indeed it is. Correction made.