Monday, May 18, 2009

Mystery Monday!

Internal Affairs by Connie Dial: In general, I'm more concerned with the story than the biography of the author telling it, but in this case, Dial's twenty-seven-year career in the LAPD is relevant because it lends tremendous credibility to her debut novel, a police procedural set in the sprawling bureaucracy that is the Los Angeles Police Department. When a female police officer, Alexandra Williams, is found dead in the trunk of a car parked outside Deputy Chief McGann's home, it's a foregone conclusion that the investigation is going to be a mess. No one wants to deal with it, but it must be dealt with. When it turns out that McGann had been having an affair with the dead officer, Internal Affairs launches an investigation into the illicit relationship, while a parallel investigation in the Robbery Homicide Division teases out Alex's other relationships. Burned-out Sergeant Mike Turner, serving his time in IA and waiting for a promotion, ends up working the murder investigation, re-igniting his passion for police work and jeopardizing his relationship with promotion-minded girlfriend Lieutenant Paula Toscano. Turner is afraid that the police chief will protect McGann at the expense of the truth, so he walks a fine line between doing the right thing and keeping his job.

Dial's police officers run the gamut from decent people who make decent cops to a self-involved Chief of Police, to a spineless Captain, to cops who abuse their power. She doesn't give all the women in her fictional LAPD a pass, either, and I found that aspect of the novel particularly interesting. Sally uses her sex appeal to go after promotions, Captain Connelly was promoted only because she's a woman and can't make a decision to save her life, Paula is determined and hard-working. I found Dial's portrayal of female police officers intriguing, and the diversity in quality really rang true.

This is the most illuminating police procedural novel I have ever read. Dial's long experience in various capacities with the LAPD puts the investigation in a solid context of bureaucracy that sometimes has to be finessed to serve justice. By the time Turner makes his decision to basically lie to his superior officer to keep working on the murder investigation, the reader understands why this is necessary to bring the truth to light. The particulars of the investigation detail dedicated surveillance, scanning of telephone records, and witness interviews that lead to the truth. This murder mystery is the perfect choice to make use of Dial's knowledge; since a cop is involved, Internal Affairs must be involved, complicating matters, and the department is caught between its mission of truth and justice and its desire to protect itself. The officers involved in the investigation have complex motives, and the backstabbing, promotion-mongering, and various relationships ring true. One wonders how many of these characters are based on real officers in Dial's past. She also portrays both sides of the bureaucracy; on the one hand, it provides the structure needed for such a massive organization to function, but it can also impede officers who are just trying to do what's right. Turner has to navigate the bureaucracy carefully, stepping outside it when necessary. Dial walks the civilian reader ably through the web of bureaucracy without being patronizing. An organizational chart and list of characters are very helpful to keeping the various departments straight.

There are certainly trade-offs in a novel that so elegantly portrays bureaucracy, organization, and structure. While I liked Mike Turner, I didn't feel particularly emotionally invested in him or the other characters. Part of the problem was a wandering point of view. Multiple points of view were necessary, but establishing Turner as the protagonist from the beginning would have been helpful. The novel begins from McGann's point of view, with Mike's point of view becoming dominant with the second chapter. Often, long sections of exposition substituted for more evocative scenes, especially when complex relationships were involved. Confrontations would be summarized instead of shown through dialogue, which would have been more powerful. Many of Turner's motivations are told, rather than demonstrated. In fact, when forty pages before the end, Turner is shown making an omelet for Paula and reflects that cooking relaxes him, I found myself wishing that more of these personal details had been revealed throughout the novel. I would have felt more connected to the characters as people, rather than as cogs in a wheel of bureaucracy.

That said, this was a cracking good read. The mystery was satisfyingly complex, with plenty of suspects and investigative threads that either didn't pan out or led to other clues. As the killer becomes more obvious, the focus shifts to Mike finding a way to prove it to the satisfaction of his boss, and that process, too, is interesting. I highly recommend this book to fans of police procedurals, anyone interested in an insider's look at the LAPD, and hard-boiled mystery readers. Available June 1.

No comments: