I do not envy those who desire to break in to writing fiction about cops. Although private-eye novels are enough on the commercial downswing that it's high time for a proper revival of the subgenre, police procedurals are in the midst of a mass media glut.
Think I'm exaggerating? The television series "Law & Order" got canceled just as a new spinoff, "Law & Order: Los Angeles," debuted on the airwaves last fall. Michael Connelly's new book, "The Fifth Witness," brings back his legal-eagle hero Mickey Haller (recently portrayed by Matthew McConaughey in the film version of "The Lincoln Lawyer"), but the following one will feature his still-primary hero, police detective Harry Bosch, struggling to reconcile his individual investigative sensibility within the parameters of the Los Angeles Police Department. Richard Price doesn't qualify as a cop novelist per se, but the insights his most recent novels ("Lush Life," "Samaritan") offer on the scope — actual and thematic — of police investigation put him in a category all his own.
And all recent cop novels — including his own, more recent fare — must measure up to the standard set by Joseph Wambaugh, who created all-too-human policemen in classic books like "The Choirboys," "The Black Marble" and "The Glitter Dome." Though his satirical edge has dulled somewhat with his most recent series of "Hollywood" books, Wambaugh has still set a hard-to-top benchmark with his unerring ability to find absurdity in the darkness; comic undertones in violence; and strangeness as only the celebrity-infested Los Angeles could provide. And what Wambaugh doesn't do, his East Coast counterpart in policing and fiction Dorothy Uhnak did, first exploring a quietly feminist approach with her Christie Opara novels, then opening up the narrative canvas with expansive sagas like "Law and Order" (1973).
But territory well-trod doesn't mean there's no room for a new perspective, one that's well-told in a voice wholly belonging to the author. If the inn was booked, so to speak, there wouldn't be any more novels set in Vietnam, during World War II or in revolutionary France. What it does mean is a debut novelist on this familiar terrain will be faced with the burden of high expectations.
With that in mind, here is Edward Conlon, a detective with the New York Police Department and author of the rapturously received 2004 memoir, "Blue Blood," detailing his exploits and life on the job. His first novel, "Red on Red" (Spiegel & Grau, 442 pp., $26), is exactly what his readers would expect: a sprawling work detailing a cop's life on the job, or, in this instance, two cops: placid Irish American NYPD detective Nick Meehan and his more volatile partner, Esposito, whose first name we never learn because Conlon never tells us. He does tell the reader that Esposito "disliked noncriminal investigations, the runaways and accidental deaths; they could be almost as much work as murders, but there was no contest, no opponent — no bad man to put in handcuffs at the end."
The Job, with a capital J, trumps most everything in "Red on Red", provoking uneasy estrangement between Nick and his wife Allison and tempering the budding romance he starts with Daysi, a flower shop worker who is painted in broad, heart-of-gold brushstrokes. Work leads to blustery conversation and lusty breakfasting for Nick and his fellow members of the policing corps, wondering among themselves how New York City changed so much over the decades, such that crime rate "began to fall, and then to free-fall, so quickly it seemed like a stock market collapse."
And as Meehan and Esposito, together and then separately, investigate a disparate group of cases, including a young woman's suicide, continuous gang warfare and the sexual assault of a young girl. Solutions don't appear with finger snaps or even through methodical work but because of a "random encounter, an offhand remark — the scraps of information … so slight by themselves, so persuasive together, that the detectives felt destiny was in play in the discovery."
There are choice and memorable moments in "Red on Red," as when the partnership, broken apart but with the possibility of reunification, is on the precipice when Nick tells Esposito: "You're chasing your own tail. What happens when you catch it?" And Esposito, stunned, "had gambled on forgiveness, but he hadn't counted on compassion, the possibility or the need." But moments do not a novel make, and the intentional sprawl highlights Conlon's weakness with an overarching narrative. It's not enough to document the innermost thoughts of cops, the changing tides of a familiar city and the street patter of people unless there are greater thematic forces at work.
One grabs onto the syntax of a Connelly, Wambaugh, Price or Uhnak soon enough, but Conlon's voice, too, never breaks through as wholly his own. More than 400 pages of observation reveal Conlon to be an expert on the protean, venal, sometimes poetic world of policing, but not yet the novelist to translate this world anew for readers in 21st century terms.
Dark Passages appears monthly at http://www.latimes.com/books.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times