'Red On Red': Not Your Standard Airport Crime Novel

Edward Conlon is a detective with the New York City Police Department. His bestselling memoir Blue Blood was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. i

Edward Conlon is a detective with the New York City Police Department. His bestselling memoir Blue Blood was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Brian Scannel hide caption

itoggle caption Brian Scannel
Edward Conlon is a detective with the New York City Police Department. His bestselling memoir Blue Blood was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Edward Conlon is a detective with the New York City Police Department. His bestselling memoir Blue Blood was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Brian Scannel
Red on Red
By Edward Conlon
Hardcover, 464 pages
Spiegel and Grau
List Price $26

Read an excerpt

"Red on red" is a military term for when enemy fighters turn against each other. It's also the title of a new book by writer and NYPD police officer Edward Conlon.

"It's analogous to what we in the detective business — or at least the New York City Police Department calls an 'exceptional clearance,'" Conlon tells Weekend All Things Considered host Linda Wertheimer. "That's when you're hunting for somebody, and you know whether he did it, and someone else takes him out before he gets arrested. Now I liked the title, 'Exceptional Clearance,' but it also sounded a little bit too much like a Steven Seagal movie."

The bad guys do mostly kill each other off in Red on Red, an unconventional take on the detective novel. There's no central crime to be solved, and there's no neat ending — just a chaotic sprawl of crime and death that serves as a backdrop to the complicated relationship between the two main characters, detectives Esposito and Meehan.

"This is not Agatha Christie stuff," Conlon says. "This is messy and often pointless, real crazy life." It's a life Conlon is familiar with; he's been with the New York Police Department for 16 years and still serves as a detective.

Red on Red is Conlon's first work of fiction, but it's not the first time he's written about the world of policing. He wrote the Cop's Diary column for the New Yorker for many years — under an assumed name — and published an acclaimed memoir, Blue Blood, in 2004.

Turning to fiction after so many years of memoir "felt a lot freer," Conlon says. "I could go into other characters' personal lives and make them messy, and make them conflicted and complicated in a way that writing nonfiction ... was none of my business."

Excerpt: 'Red On Red'

Red on Red
Red on Red
By Edward Conlon
Hardcover, 464 pages
Spiegel and Grau
List Price $26

Nick Meehan knew there was more to every story, but he usually didn't want to hear it. He was in the woods, at a presumed sui­cide, and it was raining. There had to be limits, even if it seemed cold-blooded to set them. If, say, he asked a young man if he'd hit his girlfriend, a "No" might not mean anything, but a "Yes" always did, and Nick wouldn't have to listen much longer. The story would be worth hearing if she'd chased him with a hatchet, but there was no point listening to his sad proofs and sorry protests about how she'd never really loved him. That was another story, maybe true, but what mattered was how the man put his belief into action with a roundhouse right, chipping her tooth with the gold ring she'd bought him for his birthday. She might then wonder whether she had ever loved him, doubting why she'd stolen the money for the ring from her mother's new boyfriend, who tended to walk into the bathroom when she was in the shower. You needed to contain a story like a disease, before it spread. Nick was at a suicide in the park, and it was raining.

What happened was this: The rain had let up in the early evening, and Ivan Lopez had been walking through Inwood Hill Park when the shoe had dropped on him. Inwood, the stalagmite tip of Manhattan, where the Dutch had bought the wild island from the Indians, green since the beginning of time. The shoe, an open sandal with a low heel, had fallen from the foot of a woman who was hanging from a tree. She was half- hidden amid the lower branches of an old oak whose leaves had just begun to turn gold and red. Lopez had given a little shout — "Oho!" — but had regained his breath a moment later and called the po­lice. He had done nothing wrong, he knew, aside from wandering in the woods after dark. He told the first cops that he'd gone there to walk his dog. Lopez didn't see the problem with his story, but even when it was pointed out that he didn't have a dog, he clung to the tale like a child clings to a toy, fearful that if it were taken, nothing would be the same.

Lopez was a slight man, with a put-upon air that made him look older than his thirty-odd years. He would not have agreed with any sug­gestion that his was a dishonest face, despite his worried, furtive man­ner. He had other burdens, other troubles. He'd had little experience with the police, but he knew at once that he shouldn't have begun by tell­ing them, "You're not going to believe this, but . . ." Those first seven words were the only ones they seemed to accept, as he stumbled and jumped through his version of events, further jarred by the skeptical questions that seemed to presume he knew the woman's name, where she lived. Two cops had arrived, and then two more, in cars that had rambled over the muddy fields between the street and the woods, with stops and starts and shifts in direction, as if they'd been following a scent. The cops were all larger than Lopez, younger than him, and both facts rubbed against his dignity. He reminded them angrily that he'd tried to be a good citizen in a neighborhood where that quality was not always apparent. The rebuke seemed to have some modest effect on the cops, who withdrew and asked him to wait to speak with the detectives. No one was wrong — not yet, not terribly — but neither side credited the other with good sense or good faith. No one knew what had happened, and as more was said, less was believed.

That was the scene of stalemate the detectives took in when they ar­rived. One of them was physically robust, emphatic in manner, ready for conflict, the other spare and withholding. More of one, less of the other. The second one, the lesser — Meehan — seemed more sympathetic, and Lopez chose to focus on him when he repeated his account. The audience-shopping instinct was noted with suspicion, and it was the first detective, Esposito, who asked the first question, taking control of the conversation and returning to the earlier sticking point.

"So, where's the dog?"

Lopez exhaled heavily and said he did not know. He knew how it made him sound, but he didn't see the point — or rather, he didn't like it. He didn't like the next question any better, or the man — Esposito — who asked it.

"What kind of dog was it?"

"A brown one," he said, after some hesitation.

"What was the dog's name?"

"Brownie."

That answer came too quickly, and seemed anticipated rather than remembered. Esposito pressed ahead, testy.

"'Brownie.' Where's the leash?"

"I don't have one. What does this have to do with anything? I was walking by and I got hit, out of nowhere — I could have lost an eye or something — and I try to do the right thing, and I get my balls busted by guys who — "

"By guys who what?"

Nick Meehan intruded with a mild and slightly sideways follow-up, and Lopez couldn't tell whether he cared more or less than the first de­tective, if he were signaling that he shared the joke with Lopez or was playing a new one on him: "You could get a ticket for not having a leash for the dog."

"But you don't believe the dog," countered Lopez, with a jubilant smirk. "You can't write the ticket if you don't believe the dog."

"Touche."

"Que?"

"Exactly!"

Nick didn't believe Lopez, but he was delighted by the oddly theo­logical detour of the conversation. He didn't pretend to be useful, and didn't always want to be. Nick preferred cases that went nowhere, or rather, he was drawn to mysteries that were not resolved with a name typed on an arrest report — funny things or lucky things, glimpses of ar­chaic wonder and terror, where life seemed to have a hidden order, a rhyme. Here, a witness was hanging himself in his story about a hanging woman, and the detectives were becoming entangled.

Excerpted from Red On Red: A Novel by Edward Conlon. Copyright 2011 by Edward Conlon. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved.

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