Q. What is your own background in law enforcement, and how did it lead you to write Rizzo's War?
I spent ten years working in uniform as a court officer in Brooklyn’s criminal court system, then fifteen more as a Court Clerk. During my years in uniform, I made numerous arrests and dealt with a variety of tough situations on a daily basis. Throughout my career, many duties were in conjuncture with street cops, and our experiences were quite similar. When I chose to write ‘Case Closed,’ the short story from which Rizzo's War evolved, it seemed a natural background to draw upon.
Q. Rizzo's War has an extremely authentic feel. Did you mine actual experiences for your book?
I’ve always strived for authenticity in my writing, regardless of the topic. A good writer should be able to tell many stories from many different perspectives. I’ve written short stories about speakeasy denizens, cowboys and World War II soldiers without ever having actually experienced those locales, time frames or life conditions. Having said that, let me now say that, yes, I did mine quite heavily from my law enforcement days. Much of the dialogue, and more than a few events, are culled from that experience. In addition, I spent my entire youth on the streets of Brooklyn, Bensonhurst specifically, and much of the feel of the novel, as well as composite characters, come from those experiences. In fact, it seems there are richer pastures to explore in those days of my youth than perhaps even in my twenty-five year career in criminal justice. Looking back at my teenage days, I’ve discovered a world of memories most suitable for future novels and stories.
Q. Rizzo doesn’t obey every single police regulation, but on the other hand he gets around many of them very gracefully, as proven by his long career as a detective. Do you think real-life cops in similar situations as Rizzo struggle with regulations, or often find it necessary to cross them?
There is a definite uniformity of police experience which transcends agencies and departments. Among my friends and acquaintances, I include cops from N.Y.C., Philadelpia and New Orleans, as well as a variety of small New York and New Jersey towns. I’ve also met and interacted with federal and state agents from various departments. One thing that I’ve learned from my own as well as those varied perspectives is this: Many, perhaps too many, regulations are written and formulated with a greater concern for legal and social repercussions than a practical, pragmatic view to the actuality of the job at hand. Some regulations are written in great, minute detail, then footnoted with catch-all phrases such as, ‘unless impractical to do so,’ or ‘within the bounds of safety for members of the public or law enforcement personnel.’ Some regulations, when analyzed carefully and dispassionately, simply say, ‘Do this correctly, or you’re in trouble.’ What was ‘correct’ will be decided not at the time of occurrence by the participants, but rather at a later date, with all the information now readily available and by people who were not involved in the actual event. It’s called, ‘Monday morning quarterbacking.’ Much like the Bible, most books of regulations contain rules and directives set in total opposition to each other, with many harboring more subtle contradictions. There are such a magnitude of rules, procedures and requirements that a carefully scrutinized course of conduct could almost always be found in violation of something. The arrangement protects the powers that be, and, in my opinion, is the main reason for the very existence of many of the so-called regulations. I can cite many instances where, as a court officer, it would have been virtually impossible for me to do my job if I adhered totally to each and every regulation. So, the short answer to the question: Yeah, real life cops struggle with regulations, and, if they sincerely want to do their jobs, they often must cross them. Otherwise, they must see no evil, hear no evil and protect no one and nothing from anything.
Q. Much of the book takes place in Brooklyn; is Brooklyn an especially good place to set a story about cops navigating through gray areas, or is it the setting that you know best? Could a cop like Rizzo have come from any other place besides Brooklyn?
There’s a book out there entitled, When Brooklyn Was the World. It’s a good title, but a better one would be, ‘Brooklyn Is the World.’ It’s a great place to set any story, not just one about cops and gray areas. And although it is certainly the place I know best, as I mentioned previously, I know a lot of cops from a lot of places. There are cops everywhere facing what Rizzo faces. There are gray areas everywhere. Believe me.
Q. Mike McQueen is arguably the main character of the story; why do we first see Rizzo’s world through his eyes, instead of Rizzo’s own?
It’s interesting you ask, since originally Mike was to be the main character. The viewpoint changed from his eyes to Rizzo’s because Rizzo fascinated me so much. I couldn’t quite figure him out; he kept surprising me. In fact, I’m still not sure where he draws his lines. Everyone in law enforcement must draw lines: Their locations may vary widely, but they’re always there. Rizzo has his lines, and I’m beginning to see them more clearly, as they seem to be rather close to my own, and oddly that’s come as a surprise to me. I guess my wife is right. Writers are crazy.
Q. What are you working on now?
I have a short story, ‘Central Islin, U.S.A.,’ coming out in the August 2009 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It centers around a retired town constable circa 1959, and takes place in a small farming town on Long Island, N.Y. I grew very fond of the main character, Gus Oliver, and I’d like to develop him into a serial character. I’ve been putting the final touches on a follow-up story about him tentatively entitled, ‘Home of the Brave.’ I hope to place it with Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine sometime in the future. In addition, I’ve been working on a second Rizzo novel, Rizzo's Fire. In it, Joe Rizzo is partnered with Priscilla Jackson, a favorite character of mine from Rizzo's War. Right now, however, I need to do the laundry. My wife is editing Rizzo's Fire and she cannot be disturbed.