On West 42nd Street, walking down into the sleaze of the combat zone, Gary says: ‘You gotta blend into the scenery, try rolling your shoulders.’ I do some shoulder rolling. ‘Not bad,’ Wayne says, tugging the peak of his baseball cap over his eyes, ‘only walk hip, bounce on the balls of your feet’ I manage a little bouncing. ‘See Rog,’ Gary says, ‘In this job, you gotta have attitude, hang loose, ready for anything. Runyonesque street theatre ebbs and flows around us as we wait for a bandit who spends his lunch breaks robbing banks with a pump-action shotgun. I’m ready for anything. I’m on patrol with the Street Narcotics Unit undercover. ‘Oh, and if it comes to shooting’ Gary says casually, ‘hit the deck and stay down till we get you out’. ‘One last tip, avoid eye contact’, Wayne adds his own laconic aside as we prepare for action.
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After all, it’s just another day for New York’s Finest, but for me, in Manhattan to research a book on crack cocaine, the only place for the story to start is in a nondescript brown building on West 35th Street home of the fabled Mid Town South Precinct of the New York Police Department. In the foyer a blue and gold banner hanging from the ceiling proclaims: ‘Busiest in the world!’ This used to be Kojak’s old precinct back in the days of Manhattan South Homicide. You can still picture Telly Savalas behind the desk bursting out of his fancy waistcoat. solving the case with a flourish of his lollipop and a ‘Who loves ya baby’.
Instead Lieut Dick O’Donnell is telling me about the white plague.He points to a map of the precinct on the wall. Red marker pins swarm across the streets like an angry rash. Each one a murder, mugging, robbery, rape. ‘The chief doesn’t trust the computer, so we mark each crime on the map. As you can see, the space cadets are winning, we’re snowed under.’ In Bryant Park, old men play chess in the sunshine while kids with bleepers on their belts deal snow at the back of the library. On Wall Street, yuppies snort coke to stay the pace. Behind the fortified doors of the crack houses, manufacture is simplicity itself. Take a frying pan, sprinkle in cocaine, add baking soda and water and cook until the mixture solidifies with the characteristic cracking noise which gave the product its name. Turn out the white pancake and crumble into fingernail sized ‘rocks’. Now you’re a crack dealer, peddling seven seconds of heaven.
‘We did a sweep of Bryant Park,’ says Lieut O’Donnell, ‘cleaned up the neighbourhood. You know where they’re dealing now? Back of the station house here. We’re just moving the problem around.’Ever since Serpico and the Knapp Commission, the New York Police hierarchy has been wary of drugs. Now each precinct has an Integrity Officer to keep corruption at bay. Experience has shown that massive drug profits provide the biggest temptation, and if he wants to clear the dealers from his own back yard by the book, Lieut O’Donnell must send a memo to headquarters requesting a TNT, Tactical Narcotics Team, operation. Meantime his men work off their frustration pumping iron in a multi gym in the station loft. Down at the Police Academy, rookie street cops feel the weight of Al Capone’s tommy gun. The wooden stock is worm holed. A detective with steel-rimmed spectacles and a patient manner explains, “The prohibition battles are nothing to the drug wars out there. Now we’re going up against AKs and Uzis.’ At headquarters, a red brick cube squatting in the middle of Police Plaza in the civic area of downtown Manhattan, Lieut Steve Davis reminisces about the days when he carried a gold shield on the Two Eight, a square mile of badland north of Central Park. ‘They called us the 100 per cent squad. One year we dealt with 79 homicides, mostly drug-related, and cleared up every one. You could be sitting in a coffee shop next to Faye Dunnaway with armed robbery going down in the liquor store across the street. Crack is the propellant of violent crime. No doubt about it. Cocaine came down on this town like a blizzard’.
‘We’ve had drug problems before. but nothing like crack’ says Lieut O’Donnell as he shows me around the Mid Town South station. ‘Crack blows your mind, makes you crazy. Crack’s the stone killer.’ In the muster room the shift is changing. It’s organised chaos, like a scene from Hill Street Blues. ‘Would you like to go out on patrol’? asks my guide. I say yes, assuming that I will be riding in one of the blue and white radio patrol cars echelon parked in the street outside. But no. He introduces me to a pair of scrufly looking individuals in sneakers, jeans and sweat shirts. Gary and Wayne, plain clothes patrolmen, are partners in the precinct’s Street Narcotics Unit. From the showbiz glitz of Times Square we go West on 42nd Street on the look out for the shotgun bandit. It’s a nervous time. Murders average five a day and cops figure high on the body count. A stretch Caddy with blacked out windows and a boomerang aerial on the boot cruises menacingly past and my two friends stiffen. Drive by shootings are becoming commonplace. In this town, shopkeepers hire armed guards to walk them to the bank, and television news crews wear bullet proof vests when covering crime stories. But the stakeout comes to nothing. Our robber must be lunching in today. Time is running out, so I ask Gary the question on the tip of every visiting firemans tongue: ‘How many times did you have to use your gun’?’ ‘Today could be the first,’ he says.
Modern Crime Fiction
Browsing an old book shop whilst waiting for a delayed train, I stumbled across Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction by Mike Ashley. Much to my surprise and some what delight found the following entry:
Roger Busby (b. 1941) UK
As a crime reporter in Birmingham for many years and an information officer with the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary since 1973, RB was ideally placed to ensure authenticity in his crime novels. H.R.F.KEATlNG rates them as ‘among the best informed and most effective police procedurals of the British school.’ Apart from a few standalone books his output falls distinctly into two groups.
While working in Birmingham he wrote the series featuring Detective Inspector Leric, which are set in and around the Midlands and depict an efficient if rather rough and ready D.I. who does not always engender loyalty from his colleagues despite, or sometimes because of, his sole minded determination; The story lines are fascinating such as ‘A Reasonable Man’ where a body is found in the case for a double bass. After a gap of some years, once settled in Devon, RB began a new series featuring D.I. Riley, this time set in the southwest. Riley is a more up to date version of Leric, and the cases more fast paced. ‘Snow Man’, a complicated story of three tenacious police detectives up against an international drug smuggling cartel, won the Police Review Award for the year’s most authentic police procedural. ‘Fading Blue’ is a collection of stories in anecdotal form, mostly humorous. ‘The Arrow Bridge Jumper’ formed the basis for RB’s last novel, ‘High Jump’ about a maverick policeman who twists the law.
D.I. Leric series: Robbery Blue (1969), The Frighteners (1970), Deadlock (1971), A Reasonable Man (1972), Pattern 0f Violence (1973).
Non series: Main Line Kill, with Gerald Holtham (1968), New Face in Hell
(1976), Garvey’s Code (1978), High Jump (1992).
Short Stories. Fading Blue (1984).
Full name: Roger Charles Busby.
Where to start: Hunter (1985).
Similar stuff: WJ. BURLAY, Bill KNOW, Jonathan ROSS, R.D. WINGFIELD.