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Notes From the Police Beat : THE CORPSE HAD A FAMILIAR FACE Covering Miami, America's Hottest Beat by Edna Buchanan (Random House: $17.95; 275 pp.)

January 17, 1988|Gary S. Franklin | Franklin has covered crime in several cities, including Miami. Currently, he is critic and entertainment industry reporter for KABC-TV and KABC Radio, Los Angeles. and

When I was a kid, growing up in Manhattan, an eccentricity showed up early in life: At the sound of a siren, I always tried to run to the source; word on the radio, of a disaster, I'd hop on the subway, and make my way to the scene. I knew I would spend the rest of my life in electronic journalism, no matter what.

I suspect that Edna Buchanan, a long-time police beat reporter for the "Miami Herald" probably suffered from the same childhood malady. In her case, as in mine, the malady lingers on, probably till death do us part.

Her new and second book, "The Corpse Had a Familiar Face," is an accounting of death on the streets, in the houses and the offices and in the fields, in and around Miami, which is fertile territory for such violent goings-on these days. Drugs. Black-white racial conflict. The Cubans. The heat. The humidity. The dying-out of the elderly Jewish retirees from New York, who provided a sort of rickety, but stable base, especially for Miami Beach.

Buchanan's account of death in the Miami area covers almost all the possibilities, and she has apparently covered them all: ranging from unidentified (to this day) bodies floating in a canal; to a hungry drunk at a fast-food chicken outlet, who punched the counter-girl and was shot dead by a security guard; to cab driver murders; to death during the 1972 Eastern Airlines L-1011 crash in the Everglades; to a variety of sex crimes; to the Miami racial riots. Buchanan has seen it all.

She apparently goes at her reporting with a singular mind-set, motivated by (a) the competitiveness shared by almost all good police-beat reporters, especially vis-a-vis that upstart medium of television. Buchanan, like many of her subjects , is disturbed by the intrusion of TV crews, with their self-defeating lights and cables and their often neophyte reporters, who ask inane and sometimes unanswerable questions. (b) An unavoidable awareness that she is a woman in a field reserved largely, until a few decades ago, for men, who drank hard, smoked hard, cursed hard, loved hard, and tried to pattern themselves on the images of Ben Hecht's "The Front Page."

Her book makes it clear, that after years of combing through crime scenes with the cops, walking through dangerous neighborhoods at 3:15 in the morning, and having the same difficulty as the police officers in finding a place to relieve herself (not a negligible problem in police-beat reporting, especially for a woman), she has established a mutual respect and an understanding that Cops Are People Too. Few Miami-area police officers or FBI men or narcotics agents are likely any longer to say, "Oh my God, here comes that pushy Miami Herald broad." Maybe they say it silently to themselves, but fortunately the days when such expressions, projected loudly, could pass without retribution, are long gone.

Buchanan's account is often interesting, although a bit too episodic and brief, for my tastes. I want to know more details from those stories, many of which were not only top Southern Florida news events but headline stories throughout the nation and world. One wants to know more about victims, perpetrators and cops than she seems willing to share: what about some of the details of the Easter Airlines crash and background on the "distracted" pilot? What about a more solid profile, deep and incisive, of one of the Dade County homicide detectives who has had to face too many violent tragedies and unsolved murders and disappeared children?

Furthermore, I have some minor quarrels with Buchanan's style. In radio reporting, we were told often by our news directors that we had to paint pictures for the mind via the ear. And we did. I've never been a newspaper reporter, but I suspect newspaper editors demand pictures for the mind via the eye. In "The Corpse Had a Familiar Face," Buchanan's style is lean and terse, which is nice for next-day newspaper columns, but not so fascinating in a $17.95 cloth book. Although even as written the book makes for interesting reading, I would have opted for fewer episodes in greater detail. Nevertheless, it should provide a useful guide to students of journalism and, especially, for women who wonder what to expect in the urban jungles of crooks, cops and impatient, sexist editors.

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