Tag: detectives


Homicide, Life in the Classroom

 Took a break from writing to attend a session of my local police department’s Citizens’ Police Academy. I enrolled in the Academy this past Fall but I missed a couple of sessions so I came back to the Spring Academy for a make up class. The night’s topics were investigations and motor vehicle crashes. First, we learned about accident investigations, everything from who investigates (a multi-community team of specially trained investigators), to the prerequisites required to become a crash investigator (certification as a lead homicide investigator, an evidence technician, an accident reconstructor, a drone pilot, and more), to how to determine how fast a vehicle had been moving right before it wrapped itself around a tree (it involves measuring skid marks and knowing the road’s coefficient of friction). Then we learned what it takes to be a detective (as opposed to a patrol officer) in this town. Short answer: training and experience. (Police in this town train a lot.) We learned when patrol officers call in detectives and the types of cases detectives usually handle. We learned the best way to get your luxury vehicle stolen (leave it parked in your driveway with the key fob in it and the doors unlocked) and the best way to get your house burglarized (leave the door unlocked). We learned what crimes gangs find prefer to selling drugs on street corners (stealing unlocked cars and breaking into unlocked houses). We learned why detectives don’t work hard on car theft cases (they’re almost impossible to prosecute—juvenile defendants not caught in the act who create reasonable doubt by claiming their buddy gave them a ride and they didn’t know the car was stolen). Then the detective walked us through a few of his cases. Yes, I took notes for future reference. The Citizens’ Police Academy is a great resource for writers in addition to being a great way to get to know your local law enforcement professionals. Best of all, it’s free. If your community offers one, I recommend you enroll. But be warned, if you attend, you’ll never be able to watch another cop show without saying, “That’s not how police really work.” And stop leaving your key fob in your unlocked car. Seriously.

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Writing historical characters

Please welcome the very fabulous Greer Macallister to our Miss Demeanors blog.  Greer is a poet, short story writer, playwright and novelist who earned her MFA in Creative Writing from American University. Her debut novel THE MAGICIAN’S LIE was a USA Today bestseller, an Indie Next pick, and a Target Book Club selection. It has been optioned for film by Jessica Chastain’s Freckle Films. Her new novel GIRL IN DISGUISE, about real-life 19th-century detective/bad-ass Kate Warne, was an Indie Next pick for April 2017 and received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which called it “a well-told, superb story.”   Today, Greer’s discussing how she went about transforming a real-life detective into a fictional one.    When I first learned the name of the first woman detective on record – Kate Warne – I was excited. She began work as a Pinkerton operative in Chicago in 1856, solving cases and fighting crime more than 50 years before police departments started hiring women as detectives. I couldn’t fathom why I’d never heard of her. As soon as I started researching Kate, I figured out one key reason: there isn’t all that much to say. The known facts about Kate Warne’s life and career barely fill a page. The same sparse details show up over and over again – walked into Allan Pinkerton’s office in August 1856, 23-year-old widow, eventually promoted to head up a Bureau of Female Detectives within the Pinkerton Agency and, by the way, helped save Abraham Lincoln’s life en route to his inauguration. The information on the internet is evocative, yes, but unsatisfying. I wanted more. The Pinkerton Agency’s archives are at the Library of Congress, only a few miles from my house. I figured I’d be able to delve deep and read up on all Kate’s cases, the things no one had written about yet, and spin that straw into gold. Instead, I was able to read every single document in the archives that mentioned Kate Warne and still make it home for dinner. If I were a biographer, this would have shut me down immediately. Luckily, I write fiction. The holes in Kate’s story that frustrate nonfiction writers created the perfect opportunity for a historical novelist. If Kate’s diaries or letters had survived to the present day, my task would have been to mimic her voice; but because there are none, her voice was something I got to create. I was able to give her the personality I know she must have had to do the things she did. She was bold enough to answer a newspaper ad hiring detectives at a time where women rarely worked outside the home. In my version of the story, she takes this step out of desperation – a penniless widow who has already tried all the “appropriate” ways to keep a roof over her head and food on her table has little choice but to resort to something inappropriate. The questions flew thick and fast. How did the men of the Pinkerton Agency react to a woman in their midst? How did it feel to infiltrate criminal circles in pre-Civil War Chicago, within arm’s reach of counterfeiters, thieves and murderers? How was Kate able to mimic a Southern accent well enough to fool real Southerners when she was supposedly born in New York? Every gap was an invitation. Though I’ve been an avid reader of detective fiction since college, this was my first time shaping a novel around a detective, and the temptation to write about case after case was overwhelming. But I strongly believe the novelist’s first loyalty is to the reader. I needed to do everything I could to make the book compelling but not breathless, detailed but not flabby, satisfying but not pat. In the end, my goal was to combine what was available in the historical record with fictional narrative to make a detective’s life come alive on the page. For Kate’s sake, I hope I succeeded.    

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The Real Detectives

For the sake of argument, I’ll say that mystery writers usually learn a little bit about policing. They interview detectives, visit labs, read about process and cases. They try to soak in what is necessary to help bring their story to life. I’ve the good fortune to know several writers who were also detectives. I’ve often wondered if that makes their job as mystery/crime writers easier or more difficult. Sure, they have the knowledge at their fingertips, but it must be difficult to distill this into what goes into the actual book. Writers of fiction aren’t recounting ‘fact’, we are creating it, and are allowed to bend the facts to suit the story (truthfully, expected to!). For a former detective that might be hard. I was reminded of these complexities today when reading my friend and fellow author, Brian Thiem’s, essay about returning from retirement to testify in a case that had been cold for 25 years. Brian talks about his time on the stand and dealing with the emotions of wondering if they could have done more all those years ago. In this case, there is one less killer walking the streets and that is success. He says that is what he will try to remember. For me, as I work on fine-tuning the emotions and actions of my own fictional detective inspector, Brian’s essay was a reminder that as writers we solve the crime neatly in 300 pages. (Our characters’ psyches should thank us for giving them these victories.) And I wonder…. What parts of the ‘old job’ play into the writing at the ‘new job’? Is there a part of policing that as a writer, a former detective says yep, that part of the reality gets left out? Or, I don’t worry about the process as much as the characters? I’d say there are as many response to this as there are writers, but I’m still curious…..    (To read more from the perspective of ‘real detectives’ writing about crime check out Murder-books.com. These guys are the real deal! And they write great mysteries.)

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