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Unnatural Murder by Connie Dial

October 25, 2014 Leave a comment

Unnatural-Murder-986428-fc399550babc6d57bd10

When I went to university I was, to all intents and purposes, a country bumpkin. I’d spent more or less all my time in a small village on the North-East coast of England. So suddenly coming into a major city with one of the top universities just as the counter-cultural revolution was getting into its stride in the 1960s (later epitomised as the time of “sex, drugs and rock n’ roll” by Ian Dury) ripped off my rose-tinted spectacles and invited me to make decisions about a whole range of issues I’d never thought about. Coming forward to the modern young adult leaving the nest to study, the difference could not be more pronounced. Whereas I was completely naive, today’s young have been exposed to the internet from their earliest years and are aware of most aspects of human behaviour long before they crack the teen barrier. To that extent, prejudices have been formed earlier and so can be more difficult to dislodge when later confronting the reality.

My reason for starting in this way is the theme of Unnatural Murder by Connie Dial (The Permanent Press, 2014). Today, it’s almost impossible to avoid knowing something about the range of behavior which exists on the curve from the fetishistic use of individual items of clothing, through transvestism, to transsexualism which may involve the use of hormones and/or surgery to make adjustments to external appearance. This book begins with the murder of a cross-dressing male who’s about to begin the process of gender reassignment. Just before he dies, he goes into St. Margaret Mary’s for confession. Unfortunately, instead of offering a helpful and supportive ear, Father O’Reilly’s hostile indifference drives the man away. Feeling guilty, the priest follows only to find the man killed just a few yards from the church.

The technical problem for the author to solve is one of authorial attitude. It would be possible to construct a judgmental plot in which many readers’ prejudices might be confirmed about what can be characterised as perverse sexual behaviour. Yet as the current cultural climate has shifted in favour of same-sex marriage and against stereotypical homophobic and other gender-based attitudes, the author should really be aiming for at least a neutral point of view. In a case involving transvestism, it would not be unusual for the partner to completely accept the decision of the other to dress in clothing considered appropriate to the other gender. If there are children from such a relationship, they are often even more supportive, accepting the decision of their father or mother as being true to his or her essential nature. The reaction can be different in cases of transsexualism where feelings of abandonment and rejection can be more prominent.

Connie Dial representing expertise and authenticity

Connie Dial representing expertise and authenticity

Since this is another book in which we see inside the police station run by Captain Josie Corsino, this problem is magnified because, as a woman in a role more often than not seen as “rightfully” belonging to a man, she has to protect herself, navigate the difficult sexual politics in the ranks of the officers serving in her station, and enforce a general sense of respect for the victim(s), no matter what the officers’ private opinions. Thematically, therefore, we’re confronted by a number of different situations in which gender politics are relevant. Women in the Hollywood Community Police Station have to confront prejudice just as some of those who cross-dress and appear in public can also find themselves in emotional and/or physical danger. In both cases, individuals are deliberately stepping outside the roles attributed to them by conservative culture. That they choose to confront conventional beliefs and expectations shows considerable bravery.

From a purely technical point of view, the author makes no clear distinction between the male transvestite who’s entirely happy to retain male status and often has entirely successful relationships whether comprising the same or different biological sexes, and the individual who seeks a surgical intervention to reassign gender identity. There seems to be an implicit assumption that all cross-dressers are unhappy with their biological sex. No-one with experience in psychosexual cases would agree with this proposition.

This lack of clarity and a failure to avoid a number of clichés in the relationships of those around Corsino herself, leave the book feeling emotionally superficial and unsatisfactory. This is rather a shame. Just as there have now been a number of books which deal with the situation of an African American who can pass as a Caucasian, there’s a real need for a book to constructively engage either with the individuals who can pass as a member of the opposite sex or who elect to dress in nonconforming clothing without any wish to be taken as a member of that sex. Sadly, this is not one of them. As to the mystery element, it’s somewhat mechanical and depends on some slightly unlikely events for the “right” outcomes to be achieved. The general sense of life in the Hollywood Community Police Station, however, retains the authentic feel of the first novel I read from this author. So Unnatural Murder is socially interesting in the authorial attitudes revealed. It starts with the title and goes downhill from there. All murders should be considered unnatural, but I suspect this author intends readers to infer this is the murder of a man with unnatural tendencies. Worse, I can’t particularly recommend it as a murder mystery.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Dead Wrong by Connie Dial

Dead Wrong

Between 1981 and 2009 across America, twenty-six died in so-called police-on-police shootings. In this, there’s an interesting fact. Almost all the off-duty officers mistaken for offenders and shot by fellow officers have been officers of colour. The last time an off-duty white officer was shot and killed was in 1982. We should be clear about this. Both parties in the shootings have been officers risking their lives to enforce the law and, by virtue of their training, all these deaths should have been preventable. This inevitably means race cannot be easily discounted as a reason why the deaths were not prevented. Again to be clear, the reported deaths are the tip of the iceberg. The majority of officers do not switch off when they leave work for the day. When they see a crime in progress, they routinely intervene. While in plain clothes and seen to be carrying a gun, all such officers are in danger and confrontations between on- and off-duty officers occur every day. Many officers of colour are routinely mistaken for criminals and many are shot, fortunately not with fatal consequences. This leads to a strong presumption. That there’s a strong racial bias among white officers to stereotype people of colour, and particularly African Americans, as dangerous criminals. That there’s a shoot-first-and-ask-questions afterwards approach to policing.

My reason for starting this review of Dead Wrong by Connie Dial (The Permanent Press, 2013) with a few statistics is because this book begins with Sergeant Kyle Richards, a white officer, shooting and killing Officer Terence Dupre, an African American. This occurs in a dark alley at night as the sergeant is responding to a silent burglar alarm. In choosing to focus on such a killing in the LAPD, the author is immediately setting off into difficult territory with the story of Christopher Dorner still fresh in our minds. You will recall he alleged he was the victim of racial bias which led to him being fired. Given the relationship between the LAPD and the black community has long been difficult, the real world police have been reviewing the reasons for Dorner’s firing. In this book, there’s immediate community anger and the police move carefully to investigate the circumstances of the shooting as a more or less permanent protest demonstration takes up residence outside the Hollywood Community Police Station where the sergeant is based. The captain in charge of this division is Josie Corsino and, despite nominally being a desk jockey, she becomes actively involved in the investigation. From an internal perspective, there’s a very clear explanation for the sergeant’s presence in the alley. There’s also fairly clear video evidence from surveillance cameras showing he followed protocol in the shooting. The same cannot be said for the victim who was on suspension. No-one knows what he was doing in the alley. All that can immediately be said is that he was driving an expensive sports car belonging to a somewhat notorious local attorney, an attorney who’s quickly into action to prepare a civil action for the deceased’s family against the city.

Connie Dial representing expertise and authenticity

Connie Dial representing expertise and authenticity

This is a book written by an insider. The author used to work in the police station which is the main scene of the action in this book. To some extent, Dead Wrong is a fictionalised version of what it’s actually like to work for the LAPD. I’m trying to write this in a neutral tone because many of the elements described in this book are deeply worrying. We’ve been so continuously exposed to novels, films and television programs showing us the world of both conscientious and corrupt police officers and shyster lawyers, it’s easy to treat each plot as an exaggeration of reality. Everyone understands that novelists and screenwriters need to deliver thrills and excitement. Sadly, the real world is more often routine and boring. Exaggeration is therefore required to inject the necessary drama and tension. But this novel feels authentic.

It has a simple and direct writing style, delivered in slightly dense prose which gives us the facts. It doesn’t make a song-and-dance about it. Unlike other writers who resort to purple prose to enhance the reading experience and colour our perception of what’s described, this just lays out the course of the investigation and leaves it to us to draw our own conclusions. I was hooked. It’s easy to make quick judgements about police officers who bend the rules on evidence collection. In this case we see conscientious individuals caught up in a difficult situation who take what they can find and use it to get results. That some of what they do is illegal is a commentary on the nature of the laws themselves. When investigations would quickly stall and the “truth” of the matter would remain concealed, creative rule bending and breaking is the only way forward. This doesn’t mean we should condone all illegal activities by police officers, but it should provoke a more transparent review of the current law to determine how the rules can be modified to permit police officers to be more effective detectives — assuming that’s what they want and we need, of course.

As to the police-on-police shooting itself, I find the investigation process described here to be thorough and designed to maximise the chance of working out what actually happened. I have two follow-up thoughts. Because this is LA and the relationship between the police and the different communities is tense, each investigation is highly politicised, if not on the ground, then certainly at the higher levels within the force and the city. This may militate against the effectiveness of the investigation or the transparency of dealing with the investigation’s conclusions. The second thought is the failure of this book to refer to any effort in the recruitment or training of police officers to screen for racial bias in the candidates or to train them to be less racially biased when they go out on the streets. There seems to be an assumption that nothing needs to be done to improve the performance of armed officers. This strikes me as a serious omission. As a captain in charge of a busy division, screening for racist beliefs and monitoring for racist behaviour should be routine if the relationships with local communities are to be repaired. Being seen to do nothing internally and investing significant investigative effort to prove the deceased black officer to be a criminal simply confirm the impression of racial prejudice.

As police procedurals go, this is one of the best I’ve read over the last year. It gives an unvarnished view of life in the police force and the pressures this brings to relationships. In this case, we get to see the problems in Corsino’s own family and the stresses in the lives of the other key officers involved in the investigation, an investigation that quickly opens out when the attorney representing the family of the dead officer is murdered. Pick your own reason to read this. It’s “tough”, “realistic”, “gritty”, “brave”, and so on. Whatever reason you pick, Dead Wrong is a book you should read.

For a review of the next in the series, see Unnatural Murder.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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