Monday, May 3, 2010

"Cop Probe"

Mix politics and police, and the result is poison.

John D MacDonald respected the police.
That's not an unusual sentiment for a law-abiding citizen to have, but it is a bit of an odd point of view in the realm of hardboiled mystery fiction. In that world cops were, at best, a bothersome nuisance impeding the protagonist's progress in solving a mystery, and at worst they were corrupt, brutal sadists who were little different than the criminals they pursued. This paradigm, borne of the corruption of Prohibition in the 1920's, became a hallmark of hard-boiled detective fiction and is no where better exemplified than in Raymond Chandler's masterpiece Farewell, My Lovely, with the two police "types" essayed in the characters of Lt. Randall on one end and the Bay City cops Blane, "Hemmingway" and Chief Wax on the other. Tellingly, Chandler's working title for Farewell, My Lovely was Law is Where You Buy It.

John D MacDonald never could have written a book with that title. Although he occasionally skirted the territory of government corruption and cops on the take, his policemen were by-and-large professionals who took pride in their jobs and were genuinely productive members of society. For every Lew Arnstead and King Sturnevan there were dozens of Del Carneys, Ed Browdens, Wade Illigans and John Darmondys peopling the short fiction of his early career, cops with families, moral and ethical human beings who viewed their jobs as a profession and who would no more think about stepping over the line than they would contemplate an assassination. MacDonald always claimed that his depiction of the police was not a conscious intention, but that he "tried to create people in any area -- police, bartenders, or atomic physicists... most... good.. some... terrible." Elsewhere he wrote "[i]n respectable suspense fiction one finds good, average and bad cops." Still, it is clear to any reader of this particular genre, especially from the period when MacDonald was writing primarily short fiction, that his police were typically a cut above the usually-secondary characters of most other pulp fiction.

"Cop Probe," a short story from the October 1964 issue of Argosy, is an excellent example of this mindset. It's a tale where nothing much really happens in the way of action or crime or even suspense, yet it perfectly encapsulates MacDonald's world of professionals attempting to do their jobs in a world made difficult by a few bad eggs in the department.

Well... more than just a few. Precinct Two of this large, unnamed city was rife with corruption, so much so that the Mayor appointed a special committee to investigate. This committee has the power to call in suspected policemen and take testimony under oath, and although they can't compel a cop to appear before them, failure to do so would result in an automatic suspension. So far their work has resulted in thirty-seven suspensions and twenty-one indictments, and as the story begins the chief of police has resigned. Feeling a new sense of power in an election year, the committee has started investigating the other precincts in the city, jurisdictions where cops are honest and corruption is unheard of. The result?

"Seven hundred demoralized cops. A public that thinks [police] have been knocking over more supermarkets, liquor stores and gas stations than the guys [they're] supposed to be after. Dirty headlines every single day."

Detective Sergeant Paul Deever works out of Precinct Four and is finishing up his shift. He receives a call from Captain Louis Moreno, who asks him to stop by his apartment on his way home. It seems that Moreno, who is a personal friend with Deever and was Deever's best man at his wedding, has been appointed the new Chief of Police. He also has another bit of news: tomorrow Deever will be one of three policemen who will receive requests to testify before the Mayor's Special Committee. The committee's staff investigators have turned up a few things in Deever's past that they want to talk to him about and Moreno wants to discuss them before the official request is received.

First, there was a large deposit of twelve hundred dollars that went into Deever's joint account a year ago. It's origin is unknown and no taxes were paid on it. Second, Deever was seen last year outside a notorious gambling den in a neighboring county with one of the indicted Precinct Two cops. The implications are clear and Moreno wants an explanation.

Deever explains that the deposit was an estate inheritance received from his wife's uncle when he died, and estate proceeds are not subject to income tax. Regarding the gambling den, Deever's wife Molly received a call from the wife of the indicted cop, a woman she was vaguely friendly with, requesting that she ask Deever to go round up her husband, who was "drunk and abusive and losing heavy money." Once Moreno is satisfied with Deever's responses and determines that he has documented proof of his actions in both instances, he makes an unusual request. He wants Deever to refuse to appear.

Deever is shocked and knows that his failure to testify would not only result in a suspension from the force but the automatic assumption of guilt in the public eye. He argues with Moreno but the Chief has a hunch and asks Deever to play along. When Deever asks him "Is that an order, Captain?" Moreno replies "Who else can I ask?"

Deever's wife is none too happy when she hears of the request, but he does as he was asked. Then, all hell breaks loose. The newspapers run headlines, reporters are on the front lawn and the committee head is aghast. Things begin to turn really ugly as Molly starts receiving "anonymous and filthy" phone calls and people begin throwing garbage on their front lawn in the middle of the night. Deever's fellow policemen won't talk to him and he hasn't heard from Moreno in days. When things become too much Deever calls Moreno to ask for advice, only to be brusquely told "I can't help you Sergeant. You made your decision."

Things could turn out badly, but in the JDM world of honorable cops they don't. Moreno is a MacDonald "type," a gruff, dedicated, wise, tired professional whose only goal is to do his job as well as he can, with focus, honor and integrity. The thought of doing something dirty would never cross his mind. It brings to mind my favorite John D MacDonald quote, from 1973's The Turquoise Lament:

"Integrity is not a conditional word. It doesn't blow in the wind or change with the weather. It is your inner image of yourself, and if you look in there and see a man who won't cheat, then you know he never will. Integrity is not a search for the rewards of integrity. Maybe all you ever get for it is the largest kick in the ass the world can provide. It is not supposed to be a productive asset."

As far as I can determine, "Cop Probe" has never been reprinted or anthologized.

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