Midnight Alley

Miles Corwin

A Russian prostitute was murdered in North Hollywood and the detectives I was shadowing wanted to locate her johns. They attempted to tap her phone. The phone company's police liaison, however, denied the tap.

"Why?" the detectives asked.

"Because someone else already has one."

"Who?" the detectives asked.
"I can't tell you."

A few minutes later, an FBI agent called the detectives. His task force, he said, was investigating a Russian organized crime ring and had been tapping the phones of a number of suspects, including the prostitute.

The murdered prostitute was the first case I wrote about in the nonfiction book Homicide Special, released in 2004. The LAPD had allowed me to follow the department's elite Homicide Special squad for more than a year and granted me complete access. I trailed detectives through every stage of their investigations – from murder scenes, to autopsies, to witness interviews, and, finally, to arrests. This was a rare opportunity for a journalist. It was also a wonderful opportunity for a fledgling crime novelist.

Many of the fascinating things I witnessed at crime scenes, and much of the amusing dialogue, humorous anecdotes, and mannerisms of the cops and killers I witnessed during the research of Homicide Special I worked into my fiction when I later wrote my first crime novel, Kind of Blue, which was published in 2010. When I began sketching out a plot for my second crime novel, Midnight Alley, I knew I still had a plethora of unused material from my nonfiction research. I recalled that first murder from Homicide Special and realized that a plot involving Russian organized crime and prostitution together with the conflict between the LAPD and FBI would be rich fodder for a novel. I had been given a rare inside glimpse into this world and I figured I could parlay my access into verisimilitude for the novel.

When I began researching Homicide Special, I knew I wanted to write a crime novel after the nonfiction book was published. So I always carried two steno pads. On one pad I took copious notes for Homicide Special. On the other pad I included random plot points and details about forensics and homicide investigation that I could use later for the novel. By the end of my year with the detectives, I had many ideas about plot and dialogue, cops and killers, the dynamics of the LAPD, and how detectives analyze cases. I didn't have an idea for a protagonist – the most important element of crime fiction.

The great crime novelist James Ellroy arrived in the squad room during the end of my research. He was writing an article about an LAPD cold case for GQ magazine. One afternoon he took a group of detectives to lunch at the Pacific Dining Car near downtown and I joined them. Ellroy, an amusing raconteur, regaled us with stories about his misspent youth. One night, he told us, LAPD cops busted him after he had broken into an apartment. He happened to turn around and glance at the metal name plate of the cop who was handcuffing him. The cop's name was Moscowitz. Ellroy said he thought to himself at the time, "a Jewish street cop?"

If this question interested Ellroy, I figured, it would interest readers. I decided that my protagonist would be a Jewish detective. I'm Jewish and I met a few Jewish cops during my research, so I felt I could create a convincing main character. Also, because there are so few Jewish cops in hard-boiled crime fiction, I felt my protagonist could carve out new territory.

While researching the murder of the Russian prostitute, I met a young Jewish cop who told me that when he graduated from the police academy the families of his classmates were exuberant and expressed great pride during the ceremony. His family, he said, was sullenly subdued and made it clear that they wished he had chosen another profession. I felt that the conflict between a Jewish cop and his family – particularly his mother – could make for interesting and entertaining reading.

When I attempted to outline my first crime novel, I panicked. I had spent my career writing nonfiction, assiduously referring to my notes in order to accurately quote characters, to factually depict their actions, to precisely portray scenes. Now I was faced with the challenge of creating, not simply chronicling. Initially, I was plagued with writer's block. Eventually, however, I realized that while I did not have the experience of drawing from my imagination, like most novelists, I had a wealth of inside information and insight to animate my fiction. For many years, I had worked as a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Before writing Homicide Special, I had spent more than six months trailing two homicide detectives in South Central Los Angeles for my nonfiction book, The Killing Season  and I had all those notebooks to draw from that I had filled while researching Homicide Special.  This boosted my confidence and enabled me to write my first chapter.

Many mystery novels and Hollywood crime shows are enthralled with crime but pay little attention to the consequences—they extensively portray violence, but give short shrift to suffering. When you’ve followed a real homicide investigation, the calculus is reversed. I have attempted to portray this in my novels.

Violence explodes in a split-second and then the detectives spend months and sometimes years seeking justice. If they are fortunate enough to clear the case, it’s over for them and they move on to the next murder. The families of the victims, however, endure the consequences of violence for the rest of their lives. The word closure is often bandied about in mystery novels and crime shows. Families who have lost loved ones to homicide, however, know that closure is a myth. For them, the devastation never ends.

An Excerpt from Miles Corwin's Midnight Alley, available everywhere April 16th.

    While ripping down the freeway toward Venice, I recalled how big and burly the intruder was, how he had bowled me over. This time, I decided, I needed backup. I reached for the radio and called the Pacific Division dispatcher. 
    A sergeant and two uniforms were waiting for me in a patrol car down the street from Teshay’s house. After I filled them in, we approached the house.The sergeant and one of the patrol officers covered the front door; the other officer and I circled around to the back.
    A few minutes later, I heard the sergeant shout, “We got him.”
    I ran around to the front of the house. The intruder, wearing jeans and a black sweatshirt, was proned out in the dirt, hands cuffed behind his back.
    Grimacing, face smeared with dust, he arched his neck and said, “Can I have a private moment with you, Detective Levine?”
    “You know this knucklehead?” the sergeant asked, surprised.
    I glanced at the man splayed on the ground: mid-thirties, hair cut short, thick neck, and bulging biceps. He was the same guy who had slammed me to the ground a few days ago. “I don’t think so. But what the hell. Right now he’s harmless enough. Back off and let me talk to him.”
    The three officers trudged across the lawn and lingered beside an orange tree, while I crouched beside the man and said, “You’ve got thirty seconds. What do you want?”
    “Please reach into my back pocket.”
    I snatched a black leather wallet from the pocket and opened it. Stunned, I dropped it on the grass. Inside one flap was an identification card with the man’s name—Emery Peck—and his picture. Clipped to the other flap was a gold FBI badge.
    “How do I know the card wasn’t forged and the badge wasn’t stolen?” I asked.
    “I’ll name a half dozen guys in the LAPD’s Organized Crime and Vice Division and what they like to eat for lunch,” he said, rattling off the names and the menu items. I recalled two FBI agents I had worked with in the past and asked the man to describe them and name their supervisors.
    After he passed that test, too, I said, “Where’s your dark suit, black shoes, white shirt, and rep tie?”
    “I’m undercover today.”
     I stood and called out, “Sarge, you can unhook this guy. Turns out there’s been a misunderstanding.”
    “What kind of misunderstanding?” the sergeant asked, casting a suspicious glance at Peck.
    “I’ll explain some other time,” I said.
    “You Felony Special guys with your fucking secrets,” the sergeant muttered, unlocking the handcuffs. He retreated, leading the other two cops out of the yard and onto the sidewalk out front. Peck, rubbing his wrists, said, “I owe you one.”
    “You owe me more than one,” I said. “ Last time, you knocked me on my ass, and ruined the pants of one of my favorite suits.”
    Peck, looking sheepish, said, “Sorry about that. I was just trying to get out of there with no questions asked or answered.”
    I held up a palm. “Wait here one sec.”
    I rang the bell of the neighbor, who was watching the action from her front window, her face shadowed by a flap of drapery. She nudged open the door, and I surreptitiously reached into my pocket, peeled off five twenties, and slipped them to her.
    “Is he the guy who kill my neighbor?” she asked.
    “Probably not.” I jogged back to Peck and said, “Hop in your car. I’ll follow you to the Federal Building.”
    “Still don’t believe I’m FBI?”
    “After the shit you’ve pulled, who the hell knows.”
    “Can I ask you a very big favor?” Peck said.
    “You don’t deserve a favor.”
    “I know that. But if I can help you with your case, can you forget about what happened today and the last time we met? And not put anything down on paper?”
    “It depends.”
    “It depends on what?”
    “It depends on how good your information is.”

Miles Corwin’s latest novel, Midnight Alley, will be released in April. His previous novel, Kind of Blue, was selected by Booklist in 2011 as one of the year’s Top 10 First Crime Novels. He is the author of three nonfiction books: The Killing Season, a national bestseller; And Still We Rise, was a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year and winner of the Pen West award for nonfiction; Homicide Special, a Los Angeles Times bestseller.