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.