'Blue Blood': all about 'the Job'

April 11, 2004|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,Special to the Sun

Blue Blood, by Edward Conlon. Riverhead Books. 512 Pages. $26.95

Every cop has a story to tell, and many officers dream of writing books about "the Job," as their work is sometimes known.

One officer I met in Baltimore clips every newspaper story about the department and glues them neatly into a scrapbook, right next to his own notes. One day, he says, he will write a memoir.

Fortunately, few officers publish autobiographies. Most have trouble writing and spelling -- I have seen the evidence contained in hundreds of police reports and court documents loaded with poor grammar and nonsensical sentences.

Edward Conlon is not one of those cops. The veteran New York police detective, who wrote several stories under a pseudonym for The New Yorker magazine, offers a well-written book that explores the meaning of being a police officer in some of his city's worst neighborhoods.

Tracing his family lineage -- he had relatives on the force and a father who was an FBI agent -- Conlon describes in Blue Blood how he grew to admire those in uniform and the life of those on "the Job."

"And I didn't want to hear the story as much as I wanted to tell it, and I didn't want to tell the story as much as I wanted to join it," he writes.

For many, Conlon's decision to join the force is surprising: He was a stellar student who graduated from Harvard destined for grander things. But the author entered the police academy and was soon chasing down drug dealers and responding to emergency calls and dashing up flights of dark Bronx housing projects to corner a suspect.

In some of his most vivid vignettes, Conlon describes horrific crime scenes and discusses the delicate relationship between cop and crook and cop and informant. Amid the daily grind of crime, he also gets a dose of history -- some of his most beautiful prose delves into his days searching for evidence and human remains in the debris of the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

At one point, he paws through detritus on a conveyer belt, and several artifacts spark a moment of introspection. "I was looking for bodies and finding only ironies," he writes, "and as the belt moved the rubble, the ironies were gone, too."

However, the book has some weaknesses. It is too long, and Conlon slips into police-speak too often. He also launches into predictable cop gripe sessions. Though several of the asides are important and revealing, many of the episodes bog down the already lengthy book.

Yet, when Conlon returns to the central narrative of his story about "the Job" and his "perps," he is at his best as a writer. At one point, he discusses the importance of luring confessions and statements from suspects -- a description that can be applied to his own work as a writer investigating himself and those around him.

"The value of an interrogation was not always in that you arrived at the truth, but that you drew out a story, a character, a line, and kept them coming, and wrote them down," Conlon writes. "You had testimony, and testimony has its own truth, if not about what the witness did or knows, then about who they are."

Del Quentin Wilber covered law enforcement for The Sun for more than six years and was one of the paper's lead reporters in its coverage of the 2002 sniper attacks in Washington, D.C., which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. This month, he won the nation's only police-reporting honor -- the Al Nakkula Award.

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