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Book Review: A Detailed Man by David Swinson

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A Detailed Man is destined to be categorized as a “police procedural” and David Swinson is destined to be categorized as an ex-cop. He is that. He spent sixteen years detailed to robbery and homicide in the Washington DC Police Force. He is also a first-rate writer, and his Detailed Man is not easily to be slotted into any sub-genre of crime-writing.

Yes, standard police-related topics crop up: forensics, autopsies, the gathering of evidence, the use of search warrants and interrogation. Of course they do. Ezra Simeon, the detailed man of the title, is a police detective in Washington DC. And it is Ezra Simeon that Swinson is writing about. Better put, it is Ezra Simeon’s voice that we hear, consistently, from start to finish, telling us in the present tense and the first person what he is seeing, thinking, feeling, doing, over a period of winter weeks, Thanksgiving through Christmas and beyond.

The first line of the novel puts us, laconically and without preamble, right into the unfortunate physical condition that Simeon has to live with throughout these weeks, and, at the same time, into the work ethic that dominates his life:

“People think I’ve had a stroke. They say, ‘That’s what happens when you work too hard.'”

Simeon’s face is paralyzed on one side, not by a stroke but by Bell’s palsy. He doesn’t deny that he has worked too hard, but he doesn’t want people to use his condition “to justify their low work ethics.”

He has been “detailed to Cold Case.” This, we discover on reading further, is the unit that houses unsolved cases. The expression “cold case” is simply thrown at us in the text, that is, in the voice of Simeon, unexplained, like all the other in-vocabulary of the police. Either we figure out things from the context, or we look them up ourselves. To read this novel is to hear the authentic voice of Ezra Simeon without narrative overlay.

It is this authentic voice that penetrates your head from start to finish and stays with you when you have read the last line. No monotony here. The voice has an amazing range, playing on images that we do not always immediately recognize as images. It is the voice of a detective who knows well how to write plain unadorned documents such as  a Death Report. “No literary masterpiece of criminal observation,” comments Detective Simeon, reading a cold case description of a corpse left by a shooting at the intersection of 7th and O Streets. But then it turns out that this particular location will echo through the novel — 7th and O — accruing highly evocative connotations of street justice. Thus does a street corner become a poetic device, and a plot-turner. The voice of Detective Simeon is also the voice of a man who reads books — he has hundreds of books on his shelves.

Simeon is a man in middle age, a failed marriage behind him, a career that is wearing him out and has not brought him to a settled position, “detailed,” as he always is, from one unit to another. There is one woman whom he seems to love but whose friendship he does not want to lose through ill-advised declarations of affection. Often in the novel, he goes into a kind of trance that removes him from the scene into a place of no-feeling; sometimes he calls it a “foggy haze.” His weariness is a thread running through the novel, along with other afflictions resulting from his Bell’s palsy – -his inability to eat or drink without dribbling things down his chin, to smile without grimacing, to look in a mirror without shocking himself. But this thread does not set the keynote of the novel; it does not overwhelm the highly suspenseful plot-line. Rather it throws into sharp relief the dogged detective’s unrelenting pursuit of the depraved, the cruel, the truly criminal who are assigned to him in his case-jackets, a pursuit nonetheless attended by a clear-headed, regretful but unsentimental recognition of the way young criminals are created and can have no hope.

David Swinson’s knowledge of real crime gives this novel a frightening authenticity that will pull up short readers and writers who dabble in murder mystery for fun. This comes out not only in graphic descriptions of crime scenes, of police offices, of Washington’s mean streets, it also surfaces in comments made calmly by Detective Simeon on the neighborhoods he knows so well. Thus, speaking of the young man, Grim, gunned down on his street corner, he says:

“I knew a lot of mothers too and a lot of kids like Grim who used to walk and talk like little kids should. I watched most of them grow, some not. They all learned how to walk like Grim and all the other big boys who trailed behind him who were slinging dope on the corner ever day, And talking to most of them, they all knew their time was short. Even the somewhat decent mothers knew it was bound to happen.

“It paid the rent. It bought the food. It never lasts.”

Simple devastating prose. Simple devastating truth.

I don’t think that David Swinson is writing this, nor are we reading it, for fun.

Not that he ever seems to be writing to educate the reader, still less to pontificate about crime. His detective tells a great story that keeps us rapidly turning pages. Simeon, in his dogged way, tracks down a serial killer; he fights the lethargy of colleagues who would prefer to see the case closed; he brings justice and some peace to a decent family destroyed by senseless thuggery, all the time using the language and the understanding he has built up of young street dealers in their “baggy, low rider pants” to convey his own differentiated versions of justice.

There are several great interrogation scenes in the novel, none cleverer than the one when Simeon arrests a young drug-dealer on a lesser charge only to lead him in the direction of confessing to a greater crime. Simeon is no do-gooder. His sympathies are no more engaged on the side of the perpetrator than they are left cold by the sufferings of the victims and victim’s families. What is impressive is that this man, who talks again and again about his inability to feel — “I feel like the walking dead” — conveys in spare unemotional language, sometimes bursting into striking images, his acute involvement in the lives of the people he is dealing with, none of them, you would think, subjects for a poet. But Swinson has a poet’s sensibility.

And a poet’s ability to structure complexity without tying up all the ends neatly. Various unconnected cases run parallel through the novel — typical of the police procedural as distinct from the traditional one-case detective novel. But Simeon’s own intense connection to each of these cases gives the sense of a unified plot. The novel comes to a strong conclusion, not only in the obligatory action-scene in which the detective is pitted gun to gun against the primary criminal of the novel, but in a strangely affecting postscript in which two officially unresolved cases leave us on the one hand with pity for another likely victim of the worst crime in the book but also with fellow-feeling for the perpetrator of another crime. The last paragraphs of the novel encapsulate some of this and are a poetic masterpiece. But you would have to read the whole novel to see why. A reviewer may not tell you the end of a murder mystery.

Murder mystery? Police procedural? Whatever you call it, this is a highly complex, first-rate novel, not to be lost to a wide readership through the folly of quick categorization.

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About Dorothy James

Born in Wales and grew up in the South Wales Valleys, lives now in Brooklyn, New York. Writer, editor, translator, has published short stories as well as books and articles on German and Austrian literature. Taught German language and literature at the University of London and the City University of New York, and English language at the University of Saarbrücken in Germany.. Chair of the German Department of Hunter College for fourteen years. Wrote and published a murder mystery in 2010, and blogs on mysteries and topics arising therefrom: www.myplaceformystery.com.,
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