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Interview: David Swinson, Author of A Detailed Man

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David Swinson, author of the new genre-bending detective novel, A Detailed Man, talks to us here about his novel, and opens up connections between his own life as a police detective and the complex portrait of Detective Simeon of the MPDC, the “detailed man” of the title.

David Swinson spent the 1980s as a punk rock music producer and film producer on the West Coast. In 1994, he returned to his home-town of Washington D.C. and joined the police force. He was a tactical plainclothes officer, targeting narcotics and crimes in progress. When he was promoted to detective, he worked robbery, burglary, and homicide details and was later assigned to the Intelligence Unit and Major Case. He became one of the city’s most decorated detectives.

But, as he tells us here, he was always a writer.

A Detailed Man is your first novel. The central character is a member of the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington DC. For sixteen years, you were too. People will therefore tend to slot your novel automatically into the police procedural sub-genre of crime fiction writing. Given the complexity of your novel, this disturbs me. Does it disturb you?

What disturbed me most was when my agent originally sent it out to a test group of about a dozen editors with some large publishers, and although most of them responded with very positive responses, they were hesitant because they didn’t know what category to fit it into. The book came close to getting a deal more than once, but “genre” was always the issue.

When I began to write this book it was always in the back of my head to try to bend the crime fiction genre. I wanted it to be a book that could be found in both fiction and crime fiction. I never thought of it as a police procedural, or a mystery, though. It is simply a book about a somewhat complicated man, who happens to be a police detective. The investigations and the mystery were always secondary to the protagonist’s journey through a short period of time and his take on the life and death around him. Yes, I was a real police detective and my protagonist is a police detective so I can understand how the book would be categorized as a Mystery/Police Procedural. I think being put into the mystery category bothers me more, but not because I look down on the genre or don’t want to be there. Far from it! It is a very difficult genre and some of the greatest authors write mysteries. But if you read A Detailed Man thinking it’s all about the mystery then you’ll be disappointed.

I plan on writing more Detective Simeon books. I have this naïve and probably unrealistic idea that I can redefine the crime fiction/police procedural genre in some way, make it more appealing to the general fiction audience as well as those who enjoy a decent detective novel.

You say in your bio that after years of working as a punk rock music promoter and film producer, you “pursued another passion — law enforcement” and joined the MPDC. Can you explain your passion for law enforcement?

First and foremost, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Promoting punk and college music concerts in the 80s, co-producing a spoken word record for Atlantic Records and an indie film for New Line Cinema were things I just fell into after college — one right after the other. A natural segue of events, a wide-eyed naiveté. At that time I never realized the obstacles, how difficult certain things really were. There came a time, after the film with New Line and the subsequent struggles trying to get some other projects made, that I did realize everything. It wasn’t fun. That’s when I decided that this wasn’t what I wanted to pursue in life.

My father worked for the government, and I grew up in places like Beirut, Mexico City, Stockholm and Mallorca. Most of my childhood was spent moving from one place to another, never staying anywhere longer than four years. I never really knew what my father did, but I always had this sense that it was something important — meaningful. Washington DC was always home base between countries. I grew to love that city. All this came into play when I realized I needed to “reinvent” myself and do something radical.

I always loved the idea of police work, since high school. Deciding to pursue a career in law enforcement is not something you take lightly. It was something you had to be passionate about. I knew that much. Like Simeon, I was idealistic. I wanted to make a difference. At the same time, I knew I was a writer at heart. But I knew writing was something that would always be with me. I didn’t want to get to that point in my life where it’d be too late to try so I applied to the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC. I was accepted. I honestly didn’t realize how my life would change, and how so much of my life would be consumed by the work.

I consider your novel to be a definite genre-bender, but its plot does center on criminal cases and a detective who is assigned to these cases. Have you ever thought of writing something completely different, a novel with no crime to be detected? This may be the one way really to escape the shackles of genre categorization.

I’ve had a wealth of life experience, even before my life as a cop. Much of that is revealed in A Detailed Man. I’ve had other story ideas, but I’m always drawn back to those experiences left to me by my life as a cop, not only what I’ve learned and seen, but what I’ve felt. It changed me. Right now, I’m not finished with exploring that lifestyle. It has nothing to do with the process involved in solving crimes, even though that’ll always be a part of the story. I’m more intrigued with character studies, environment and ambience.

Your Detective Simeon is a man who has suffered disappointments in his personal and professional life, and on top of that, he is afflicted with Bell’s Palsy. He is constantly battling weariness and depression in private while in public he is an impressively professional cop. Did you deliberately set out to create an anti-heroic hero? And if so, why?

Yes, I wanted him to be a very broken man. Broken, but committed. Broken, but not realizing how broken he really is. The reality and sometimes downfall of those involved in police work is that the working cop will never allow things like depression and the stress of the job to reveal itself. If it’s something realized, you keep it hidden. Years of living like that can have a devastating effect on the body and mind. I like the idea of working with a character like this.

You do not pull any punches in your book as to the difficulties of being a cop in Washington DC. Simeon is not the only detective we meet who is over-worked, close to the end of his tether, and unsure that justice is being served in the system. But there is, I think, no cynicism in your portrayal of the police. On the contrary there is a strong sense of fraternity and of a desire to do a good job despite everything. Does this come from your own experience?

Yes, definitely. As Detective Simeon said, “ . . . a bond created by fraternity, years and years of sodality engrafted in us through the installation of some magical oath.” Unlike any other career I can think of, it is a job that becomes a way of life. Your life does not belong to you. Realizing that can be difficult at times, but you find strength in that fraternity and the original commitment you made when you were sworn in. I realize how corny that must sound, but it truly was like that for me and always more than just a job.

The fraternity of the police force notwithstanding, there is an amazing understanding in Simeon of the young men who early become criminals and have no hope in their lives. To me, this understanding shines through a very dark picture. Can you say anything about this?

It is the victims and the families of victims that will always concern me most, but there is a socialization aspect when it comes to a certain type of criminal. I had empathy for some of those defendants because they were not only the product of upbringing, but also a failed system. Most correctional facilities are not designed to rehabilitate, merely house. As a result, most prisoners (mostly related to crimes committed as a result of an addiction to crack or heroin) go in sick and come out sicker. On the other hand, when it comes to juveniles and adults who commit violent crimes or are involved in the drug trade, being sent to prison is like going to college. It can be the wrong kind of education. They come out tougher, and usually smarter.

As a cop, I took it on myself to try something different and get close to some of these guys and gals — going a step further after their arrest. Sometimes that meant working with the prosecutor who in turn would work with the defense and ultimately the judge, to get them the help they need while imprisoned. There are a lot of good programs, but most of these guys and gals are just locked up and don’t get the benefit of some of these programs. The obvious objective is rehabilitation, the idea being, that my job and the job of my co-workers would be made easier and the general public safer because we wouldn’t keep seeing the same faces over and over throughout the years.

When writers set their novels in foreign countries, one always wonders how they will create authentic dialogue. Your novel, playing in some of the seediest streets in Washington, is in a foreign country to many readers. Simeon, the narrator, varies his language brilliantly from the jargon of the cops to his own literate thinking to the street language of the young street corner thugs. Did you do this consciously?

Yes, that is what you learn to do on the job. A necessity, but you quickly learn never to attempt to be anything other than who you really are. The manner in which you speak to someone might differ, but you should always be true to who you are. It’s obvious when you’re not.

Some of the best scenes are interrogations. Everyone who writes detective stories creates interrogation scenes. Most have never interrogated anybody! The twists and turns of your interrogations are brilliant. Are they based in your experience?

Yes. One of the things I loved most about being on the job was getting “in the box” after an arrest. Also, I often debriefed defendants through the U.S. Attorney’s Office. I never considered what I did interrogating, though. They were interviews, discussions, finding what it was you could most identify with about the person. It didn’t matter how heinous the crime was. You had to set that aside. The obvious goal is a confession, but it starts with their story, sometimes their life story.

There are lots of words and abbreviations in the text not immediately comprehensible to the lay reader. These add to the authenticity of the language and the tone but would you think it very pedantic to add a glossary?

That would have taken away from the reality I wanted for my protagonist, Simeon. Because of his voice, something like that, in my opinion, would hinder the flow. I’d like whoever reads it to simply be with him on every page.

Your novel involves various cases assigned to Simeon. This means that there are essentially several unconnected plot lines threading through the novel, and you hold them together very well through the character of Simeon. Did you map out your novel at the beginning, deciding where these cases were going and how you would juggle and entwine the narratives, or did the story evolve as you were going along?

I didn’t want to know where the investigation would take him. Having been a real police detective, I wanted to approach that aspect of the book as if it were a real investigation so I didn’t know how it would end. The story took on a life of its own. Often that really set me back because I’d have to figure out what to do next.

Your Detective Simeon is a reader, he owns a lot of books and quotes from writers as relatively obscure as, for example, William Gifford (“Countless shades…”) When I read that Simeon had been a public school teacher of English, I wondered if you or your publisher had been afraid that people would not believe in such a literate cop. Did you think this needed an explanation?

No, because I’ve always been a reader. I grew up reading Dickens and having my father read me Graham Greene. I know countless cops that are incredibly well read, and come from backgrounds as diverse as mine. I made Simeon a public school teacher because he always wanted to have a hand in affecting lives. He started off in life as a naïve idealist.

What do you read for pleasure?

I grew up with books. I used to smell the pages. I still do. I have a lot of books in my home office. Most of them are like family members, old friends, or works of art hanging on a wall. I’ve always been a big fan of Charles Dickens, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Hardy and of course all those writers filled with despair like Dostoyevsky, Kafka, and Bukowski. I’m also a big fan of Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Lethem, and John Banville. When it comes to crime fiction I love Henning Mankell and the husband/wife team who are the mother/father of all Scandinavian police procedural fiction, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. I’ve read all ten of their books, which span ten years in the life of Investigator Martin Beck.

Are you writing another Detective Simeon novel? If so, can you do it without being unduly influenced by what people have written about the first one? I certainly hope you are doing it, and holding to the inspiration of A Detailed Man.

I am going back and forth on how I want to approach the second novel. It will definitely involve Detective Simeon. I’m not finished with him yet.

Glad to hear that. There are many readers out there waiting for the next one. Thank you very much for talking so openly to us.

A Detailed Man was published by Dymaxicon in 2011. You can find more information about David Swinson and his work on his website: http://davidswinson.com

See also Blogcritics review, May 8, 2012

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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.,