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Pen, paper and policing

Blue Blood; Edward Conlon; Riverhead: 562 pp., $26.95

May 09, 2004|John Miller | John Miller is the commanding officer of the LAPD's Counter-Terrorism Bureau and coauthor of "The Cell: Inside the 9/11 Plot and Why the FBI and CIA Failed to Stop It."

If there is one thing that sets "Blue Blood" apart from the average true police story, it is that almost nothing happens. You start into Edward Conlon's story about becoming a police officer in New York City. You go through the requisite paces. He is in the police academy. He is on his beat for the first time. Conlon takes you back through his family history, his childhood, his relationship with his father, a Hoover-era FBI agent. Alternately, you flash forward to Conlon's life as a newly minted cop on the rough streets of the South Bronx. All the while, you are waiting for that turn -- into, say, the French Connection case, or some big murder that he, alone, spent several years solving. It never happens. But soon you stop waiting -- in fact, you begin to suspect that in "Blue Blood" nothing big will ever happen. But by then it is not the pace of events that keeps you reading; it is Conlon's writing that takes you over.

Conlon's story is not a police-action drama or a mystery; rather, it is much more like the careers of most police officers. Most cops never make that big headline arrest. Most never fire their guns in the line of duty during a 20-year career. But though Conlon's police career is typical, Conlon is not your typical cop. He looks like a movie star. He went to Harvard on a scholarship. After graduating, he drifted from job to job, finally linking up with a social service agency that worked to find alternatives to imprisonment for people charged with felonies. He spent a lot of time with criminals as their advocate, even arguing for them in court. Those are not the average precursors to a job with the New York Police Department.

We are introduced to many of the ghosts of the Conlon family. These ancestral scoundrels have a lot to do with why Conlon is drawn into what in NYPD-speak is referred to simply as "The Job." There was his great-grandfather, NYPD Sgt. Patrick Brown, a turn-of-the-century cop who flourished in those neighborhoods where the lines between cop and crook could be seamless. Conlon writes: "He seemed determined that his appearance reflect his place in the world, and if his attire was a little flashy but of good quality, bespeaking both gentleman and gangster, then it may have described him more truthfully than he intended. In fact, after he retired to the horse room, where bets were collected and paid as the teletype hammered out news from the track, the progression from crooked cop to upstanding criminal could be viewed as a step in the right direction, at least in terms of appearances."

Whereas great-grandfather Brown was an object of historical curiosity, Conlon was much more affected by his uncle, Ed the Cop. The uncle Ed stories combine enough benign rascality with enough of what is admirable about police work to make him the good ghost to Pat Brown's bad ghost.

When Conlon comes on The Job, we are taken through his rites of passage: the first test of his authority and courage by young street punks; the first test of his compassion in his attempts to help those seemingly beyond help in the deadly cycle of big-city poverty and drugs; the comedy of nearly wrecking a woman's apartment while trying to capture her vicious cat. This is precisely where Conlon's stories take you in. He thinks with the cynical wit of a street cop but he writes like -- well, not like a cop.

His first dead body:

"My first murder was an awful one -- an old man on the floor in a hiked-up flannel nightshirt, who had been strangled, stabbed and beaten, his arms bent into unnatural angles like chicken wings, and though I felt sorry for him, I wasn't unduly troubled.... The stillness of death transfixes me, reminding me that nothing living doesn't move, not the deepest sleeper or a cat on the prowl, poised to leap. There is always some rhythm, some tremble or shift, that betrays animation. Only when that goes do they become motionless as photographs, as stones, and their meaning, like their movement, is only what they inspire in those around them."

Here's the story of another dead body, one he is assigned to baby-sit until the medical examiner arrives. The man has died at home by himself. There is a new television set in the apartment, among a world of old possessions. The room suggests that the man was all alone in his final days. Now his drunken stepson shows up with a girlfriend to demand the TV. "We loved him. We was his family! Let's have that TV!" they wail. Officer Conlon closes the door on them. While he watches the new TV with the old dead man, the phone rings. It is a salesman peddling life insurance. When he learns that the prospective customer is already dead, he says, "Have you considered whether you have all the coverage you need, Officer?" Conlon hangs up and goes back to watching television.

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