Review of “A Detailed Man” by David Swinson

“That’s the life of a detailed man.  You never have anything of your own. Everything’s borrowed. Even the time.”

Detective Simeon is this detailed man.  The author, David Swinson, has himself worked robbery and homicide details.  Some readers may wonder what “a detailed man” is. Swinson is writing from inside the head of a man detailed to the homicide unit of the Metropolitan Police in Washington DC.  The MPDC is the setting in which Ezra Simeon lives, breathes and has his being.  He carries us into it, and we sink or swim in his consciousness.

[Parts of this article were first published as Book Review: A Detailed Man by David Swinson on Blogcritics.]

A Detailed Man is destined to be categorized as a “police procedural.”  David Swinson is destined to be categorized as an ex-cop. He is that. He is also a first-rate writer, and his Detailed Man is not easily slotted into a sub-genre of crime-writing.

In this blog, I wanted to think about all kinds of murder mysteries, past and present, not in any particular order, but as they cropped up in my mind, in my memory, on Twitter, in conversation—the same kind of serendipitous selection that has always guided my reading of mysteries, a fairly light-hearted business, though with twinges of conscience at using murder for entertainment.  I have tended to shy away from police procedurals. Why?  I know very little about the police. I know a fair amount about fictional police detectives, and, yes, I have had the temerity to write a couple of murder mysteries with a police detective conducting the investigation. But do I really know any policemen? No.  Well, now I know Ezra Simeon, and this detailed man has had a profound effect on me.

This is not because Swinson is setting out to educate the reader about the work of the police force.  Yes, in his novel, the standard police-related topics (as listed in the Wikipedia definition of a police procedural) crop up: forensics, autopsies, the gathering of evidence, the use of search warrants and interrogation. Of course they do. Ezra Simeon is a policeman. And it is Ezra Simeon that Swinson is writing about. Better put, it is Ezra Simeon’s voice that we hear, consistently, from start to finish, telling in the present tense and the first person what he is seeing, thinking, feeling, doing, over a period of winter weeks, Thanksgiving through Christmas and beyond.

The first line of the novel puts us, laconically and without preamble, straight into the unfortunate physical condition that Simeon has to live with throughout these weeks, and then into the work ethic that dominates his life:

People think I’ve had a stroke. They say, “That’s what happens when you work too hard.”

Simeon’s face is paralyzed on one side, not by a stroke but by Bell’s palsy. He doesn’t deny that he has worked too hard, but he doesn’t want people to use his condition “to justify their low work ethics.”  Simeon, we quickly find out,  is a worker, compulsive in the pursuit of his cases, and he is not the only cop in the novel to be driven into ill health and even death by overwork. Simeon is detailed to homicide to fill the place of a former Police Academy buddy of his, Scanns, who has died of a massive heart attack, “a body and mind rendered insensible by exhaustion” [27].

Just before,  Simeon had been “detailed to Cold Case.” This, we discover on reading further, is the unit that houses unsolved cases. The expression Cold Case is simply thrown at us in the text, that is, in the voice of Simeon, unexplained, like all the other in-vocabulary of the police.  Either we figure out things from the context, or we look them up. Perhaps people who have read a lot of police procedurals know such things. In any case, Simeon does not explain words, nor yet abbreviations, of which there are many, such as the ubiquitous VCU, mentioned at least six times before we come across the actual term, Violent Crime Unit.  Some might think this obvious, but does anyone outside Washington D.C. know that ANC stands for Advisory Neighborhood Commission? Well, go figure. Meanings usually become obvious from the context, and only real pedants like me will go rushing to Google to check them out, and to look up street maps of Washington DC to see where things are. A pedant might suggest a glossary, such as one finds in a novel out of, e.g. the old East Germany, where acronyms are also rife—the comparison is not that far-fetched—the mean streets of Washington DC are a foreign country to most people who only dabble in murder mystery for fun.

But to read this novel is to hear the authentic voice of Ezra Simeon without narrative overlay.  It is this authentic voice that penetrates your head from start to finish and stays with you when you have read the last line. No monotony here. The voice has an amazing range, playing on images that we do not always immediately recognize as images. It is the voice of a detective who knows well how to write plain unadorned documents like a Death Report.  “No literary masterpiece of criminal observation,” comments Detective Simeon, reading a cold case description of a corpse left by a shooting at the intersection of 7th and O Streets. But then it turns out that this particular location will echo through the novel—7th and O—accruing  highly evocative connotations of street justice. Thus does a street corner become a poetic device, and a plot-turner. The voice of Detective Simeon is also the voice of a man who reads books—he has hundreds of books on his shelves.

Listen to Simeon’s voice. He has just returned from the funeral of his old buddy, Scanns,  who died not at home with his wife, Celeste—Simeon had been best man at their wedding years before—but in the apartment of a girlfriend:

It’s strange how silent this evening is. The city is quiet for lack of sirens, horns, loud people and the sound of their bottles breaking in nearby dumpsters. I hate funerals. I’ve never understood the custom of viewing the dead. Cremate my human remains and if there’s a need for any ritual,  just keep the ashes in a clean pickle jar on a shelf beside your favorite book. I won’t have anyone charged with such a burden as arranging burial. You can count on that.

I haven’t moved from this couch since I got back from the funeral. That was about four hours ago. I feel the loss but not the pain. The dead grieving the dead.  That’s how I feel and why I will sit here, all night if I have to, in an effort to find real tears.

‘A weary lot is thine.’ Yes, it surely is [34].

First we hear the silence. We hear it through the city noise that mysteriously isn’t there. Then the undercutting of any hint at sentimentality in connection with the funeral, speaking directly, as this voice often does,  to you, the reader, the unnamed listener to his story: The hard-boiled realist tells you to put his ashes in a pickle jar. Then, not so hard-boiled,  he conveys succinctly the pain that he says he cannot feel. A quotation crops up in his head:  A weary lot is thine—Swinson upholds  the device of non-explanation, rarely saying where his not infrequent quotations are from.  It matters as little as whether you decipher ANC or not.  You may or may not hear an echo of  Sir Walter Scott’s  Rover’s Adieu, “A weary lot is thine, fair maid,” the sad fate of the girl deserted by the soldier. Be that as it may, echoing through your mind at the moment, as through Simeon’s,  must be Scanns’ grieving widow, deserted in death by her husband, though she did not know it, and echoing there too are the murdered prostitutes, victims in the primary case in his case jacket. Pretty young “escorts”, their terrible fate as undeserved as any fair maid’s.

A weary lot is thine, Detective Simeon. Yes, it surely is.  He is a man in middle age, a failed marriage behind him, a career that is wearing him out, and that has not brought him to a  settled position, detailed as he always is from one unit to another.  There is  one woman in his life whom he seems to love but whose friendship he does not want to lose through ill-advised declarations of affection. He often goes into a kind of trance that removes him from the scene into a place of no-feeling; sometimes he calls it a “foggy haze.”

His weariness is a thread running through the novel, along with afflictions resulting from his Bell’s palsy–his inability to eat or drink without dribbling things down his chin, to smile without grimacing, to look in a mirror without shocking himself, and then his personal procrastinations, always looking at the belongings of his buddy, now packed into  boxes around his desk, and promising himself that he will soon take them to Celeste, the widow, but not facing up to it until the very end. But this thread does not set the keynote of the novel;  it does not overwhelm the highly suspenseful plot-line.  Rather it throws into  sharp relief the dogged detective’s unrelenting pursuit of the depraved, the cruel, the truly criminal, assigned to him in his case-jackets, a pursuit attended, despite everything, by his clear-headed, regretful but unsentimental recognition of the way young criminals are created and can have no hope.

David Swinson’s knowledge of real crime gives his novel a frightening authenticity authenticity that is bound to give pause to readers and writers who dabble in murder mystery for fun.  This comes out not only in graphic descriptions of ugly crime scenes, of run-down police quarters, of Washington’s seediest streets. It also surfaces in comments made calmly by Detective Simeon on the neighborhoods that he knows well from his time as a plain clothes detective in the narcotics detail, the place where he honed his skills and “learned how to talk to people:” Speaking of  the young man , Grim, gunned down on his street corner, he says:

I knew a lot of mothers too and a lot of kids like Grim who used to walk and talk like little kids should. I watched most of them grow, some not. They all learned how to walk like Grim and all the other big boys who trailed behind him who were slinging dope on the corner ever day.  And talking to most of them, they all knew their time was short.  Even the somewhat decent mothers knew it was bound to happen.

It paid the rent. It bought the food. It never lasts [p.11].

Simple devastating prose.  Simple devastating truth.

Not for fun. I don’t think David Swinson is writing this for fun.

But if I seem to be moralizing and even pontificating  here, please note, Swinson does neither of these things.  Ever. He tells a great story that keeps you rapidly turning pages.  Simeon in his dogged way, tracks down a serial killer, he fights the lethargy of colleagues who would prefer to see the case quickly closed, he brings justice and some peace to a decent family destroyed by senseless thuggery, all the time using the language and the understanding he has built up of  young street-corner dealers  in their “baggy, low rider pants” to convey his own differentiated versions of justice.

There are several great interrogation scenes in the novel, none cleverer than the one when Simeon arrests a young drug-dealer on a lesser charge only to lead him in the direction of confessing to a greater crime.  Simeon is no do-gooder. His sympathies are no more engaged on the side of the perpetrator than they are left cold by the sufferings of the victims and victim’s families.  What is impressive is that this man, who talks again and again about his inability to feel—“I feel like the walking dead”—conveys in spare unemotional language sometimes bursting into striking images his acute involvement in the lives of the people he is dealing with, none of them, you would think, subjects for a poet.  But Swinson has a poet’s sensibility.

And a poet’s ability to structure complexity without tying up all the ends neatly.  Various unconnected cases run parallel through the novel—typical, I am told, of the police procedural as distinct from the traditional one-case detective novel.  But Simeon’s own connection to each of these cases gives the sense of a unified plot.  The novel comes to a strong conclusion, not only in the obligatory action-scene in which the detective is pitted gun to gun against the primary criminal of the novel, but in a strangely affecting postscript in which two officially unresolved cases leave us on the one hand with pity for another likely victim of the worst crime in the book but also with fellow-feeling for the perpetrator of another crime. The last paragraphs of the novel encapsulate some of this and are a poetic masterpiece. But you would have to read the whole novel to see why. A reviewer may not tell you the end of a murder mystery.

Murder mystery?  This is a highly complex novel. At one point, Simeon is driving along and thinks of something he has just read. He had told us earlier that he was reading G.K.Chesterton’s biography of Dickens.  He was having trouble finishing it, he said, but a sentence from it comes into his mind: Our lives can be like a tangle of unfinished tales. As always, Swinson drops the quotation into his text and leaves it there. But Chesterton does indeed say this in his biography of Dickens, contending that Dickens’ best autobiography was David Copperfield, and that autobiography to be honest must be turned into fiction. “A touch of fiction is almost always necessary,” writes Chesterton, “to the real conveying of fact, because fact as experienced, has a fragmentariness which is bewildering at first hand and quite blinding at second hand. Facts have at least to be sorted out into compartments, without this selection our life seems a tangle of unfinished tales, a heap of novels, all volume one.”

Detective Simeon certainly does not discuss this point. But what David Swinson does in his Detailed Man is to capture the fragmentariness of fact in an amazing piece of fiction. Call it a police procedural if you will.  Or a tangle of unfinished tales.   And the most interesting unfinished tale of all is that of Simeon himself, the man detailed to homicide, who says of himself, “I feel as though my whole career has been one big detail, never having the time to settle in some place. Even at the district, everyone coming and going, like Union Station most of the time. And I’m like the guy sitting on the bench waiting for the train.”

I very much hope the guy sitting on the bench will tell us some more of his unfinished tales.

There are many things that remain to be said about David Swinson’s first novel, and I am glad that he has agreed to be interviewed in this blog. If you have any questions for him, please let me know. I will post a longer bio at that time. For now, a few facts:

David Swinson began his career at the height of the punk rock movement in the early 1980s. After attending California State University as a film major, he booked and promoted punk rock and alternative music at Fender’s Ballroom, Melody Dance Center and Bogart’s Nightclub in Long Beach, California. He produced spoken word events with Hunter S. Thompson, Dr. Timothy Leary, John Waters and Jim Carroll and the cult classic film Roadside Prophets starring  John Doe (of the band X) and Adam Horovitz (of the Beastie Boys).

In 1994, Swinson pursued another passion – law enforcement. He returned to his home base of Washington DC, where he joined the Metropolitan Police Department and worked robbery, homicide and narcotics details. He became one of the city’s most decorated detectives.

He currently spends most of his time with his wife and daughter in Northern Virginia, where he is working on his second novel.

[Footnote: I have read the paperback and the Kindle e-book versions of A Detailed Man and these editions could do with more careful editing. There are mistakes that could easily be corrected. Since I am sure this novel will go into other editions, I imagine the corrections will be made.]

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About dorothyjames

Welsh-American writer, German scholar, translator, traveller.
This entry was posted in crime fiction, detective fiction, literary mystery, police procedural and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Review of “A Detailed Man” by David Swinson

  1. A thoughtful and exceptionally analytical review, Dorothy. Thank you!

  2. Nan says:

    Such a great review! I am a big fan of police procedurals in books and on tv. As for editing, I see so many books and newspapers now that suffer from lack of editing.

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