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Crime Writer Glad to March to Police Beat

Times Staff Writer

There we were, at Le Meridien, me and the most famous police reporter in America, sipping champagne and talking about beheaded corpses and gunned-down drug dealers.

Edna Buchanan is the Pulitizer Prize-winning Miami Herald police reporter whose book, “The Corpse Had a Familiar Face,” is a best seller.

She also is the only woman I know, besides myself, who has made a date chase a fire engine to get a story.

Buchanan was in town that recent Saturday to talk to about 400 Orange County journalists at a press club writing symposium. I picked up lots of pointers, but I found my half-hour chat with Buchanan at the fern bar much more fun--and the most rewarding part of the day.

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With tears in her eyes, she talked about being homesick.

“I’ve never really been very good at relationships,” she said. “My real love affair has been with Miami. People hate the humidity, but I love it best when you can see the heat baking off the sidewalk. . . . That’s the way it was, I guess, the first day I got there. I don’t know. I’ve always put the job first.”

I had trouble mustering the same rapture for Santa Ana, my home of five years. But I did understand what she meant about how covering crime can squeeze out a personal life.

There is always a crime somewhere. Over the years, relatives and friends get tired of hearing how the bank robbery made you late for Christmas Eve turkey. (“But they were dressed like the Marx Brothers!”)

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Silver-blond and charming, Buchanan had to fight for years, she said, to get at the best of the big crime stories. I nodded. When I was brand new to the police beat, I asked my editor to let me cover a story about a bunch of Hells Angels who decided to ride their Harleys in formation down the freeway to the Red Cross, where they were to give blood. He told me it would be too dangerous for a young woman and sent a man instead. Too bad. It was a good story.

Many police stories can be surprisingly bright and funny.

Buchanan tells some of the best, like the story of the one-legged bandit who escaped from police on foot. My favorite, from my own experience, is the one about the bank robber who handed a teller a demand note written on his own deposit slip.

But mostly the police beat is long hours of dealing with yellow barricade tape and grieving relatives and extracting details from people who, as a group, dread reporters.

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I once heard a story about a meeting of Orange County reporters and police officers that was designed to improve relations. One of the first questions from an officer: “Why do you reporters write all these stories that ruin everyone’s lives?” The response: “Why do you kill people in your jail?”

Buchanan laughed. She knows. After five years of it, I blew out like a candle. Buchanan, 17 years and two husbands later, is still fired up, talking about all the yarns she missed in the six months she took off to sell “The Corpse Had a Familiar Face” and write a novel. She is already planning “Never Let Them See You Cry,” a sequel to “Corpse.”

She wonders how much longer she can keep up the pace of writing in her macabre and marvelous detail.

“I’ve been thinking a lot lately about whether I want to be doing this when I’m 60,” she said, heaving a sigh. Then she grinned. “Did I tell you about this great murder case I’ve been working on where this Cuban guy. . . .”

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