'Red On Red': Not Your Standard Airport Crime Novel Edward Conlon is a crime writer and an NYPD detective. He puts those two perspectives together in an unusual new novel, Red on Red, that doesn't follow the standard pattern of most detective fiction.
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'Red On Red': Not Your Standard Airport Crime Novel

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

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

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"Red on Red" is a new novel written by a New York City police detective named Edward Conlon. It's his first run at fiction. His first book, which did very well, was nonfiction, a memoir of his first years on the police force called "Blueblood," no relation to the television program with the similar name. He's also written a column about cops for New Yorker magazine, although under another name.

Ed Conlon joins us from our studio in New York City. Welcome to the program.

Mr. EDWARD CONLON (Author, "Red on Red"): Thanks for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Now, your book is called "Red on Red." What does that mean, red on red?

Mr. CONLON: It's a military term for when the enemy turns on the enemy. And it's analogous to what we in the detective business, or at least New York City Police Department, calls an exceptional clearance. That's when you're hunting for somebody, and you know either he did it, and somebody else takes him out before he can get arrested.

Now, I like the title, exceptional clearance, but it also sounded a little bit too much like a Steven Seagal movie, so I went for the military version.

WERTHEIMER: Okay. It seems as though this is not a detective novel in the sort of traditional sense, like, you know, the detective novels we all read on airplanes. Generally speaking, crime novels, you know, start with a crime, work its way through to a solution and then they end. I think it's one of the reasons people like them. They have a kind of very disorderly but orderly progression. Your book's not like that. Why not?

Mr. CONLON: Because that's not the police work as I've experienced it, and that's not storytelling as I enjoy doing it. It's - you wander a bit and you make mistakes. And things are not clear. In a detective work, this is not Agatha Christie stuff, you know? This is messy and often pointless, real crazy life.

WERTHEIMER: It seems like the main focus of the book, the two detectives, Esposito and Meehan, are two very different kinds of men, and that seems to be a main - a principal part of what you're doing here.

Mr. CONLON: These are sort of marriages, these cop partnerships. I mean, there's reasons why they lend themselves to drama. You're with somebody -you're with the person you work with for sometimes, you know, 48 hours at a stretch, and you change each other, you affect each other. You know, it's always the sort of the B plot of all the TV series. You know, the A plot is, you know, the girl got kidnapped or somebody got shot and the B plot is, you know, is Sipowicz drinking again or what's happening to his marriage.

But the fierce attachments and competition between police partners is what drives this drama.

WERTHEIMER: You know, when I was trying to describe what it is that this book is like, I kept coming around the idea that it was an allegory, that you were, you know, you were talking about some sort of stroll through hell here.

Mr. CONLON: That didn't occur to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONLON: See, I think Washington Heights is...

WERTHEIMER: I'm giving you more literary credit than you want, huh?

Mr. CONLON: I think Washington Heights is a great part of town. You know, it was, you know, in the '80s and '90s, you know, the murder capital of New York City. It was the center of the crack trade. It's calmed down significantly since then, but it's still a complicated part of town where beyond, you know, the sort of real city stuff, I mean, you're also very close to nature. I mean, it's full of parks. The river is right there. It's a place where you can walk a few feet and be in the last big of original forest in Manhattan where the Indians made their infamous bad deal.

WERTHEIMER: With the Dutch, right?

Mr. CONLON: Yeah. That's right. That's right.

WERTHEIMER: So do you think this book is - does it reflect your experiences? Have you had similar sorts of experiences and doubts and concerns and panic attacks as these guys do?

Mr. CONLON: Sure. You know, nothing is - in the book is directly taken from real life. There's a lot of worst-case scenarios, there's a lot of what-ifs. There are some surface details and situations that did come from life. I mean, there's a scene with a bloodhound pursuit in a blizzard that guys in my squad were involved with, literally, you know, Uptown Manhattan, snow falling, getting too deep almost to walk while the bloodhound is leading you forward for a kidnapper in the real-life case.

Some of these things are too good to resist. I mean, the difficulty, really, in writing this book was that my day job gave me so much material. You know, for example, I - once I was - we had a homicide, and we got some information that the guy was hiding out in a tenement in Brooklyn. As it happens, our fugitive was being harbored by an elderly blind man. And this guy, who was talking to a policeman on his fire escape, keeps on insisting that he has to see my ID.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONLON: Now, you know, he's blind. I mean, I could have shown him a baseball card. I could have shown him the ace of spades. And, you know, I don't think he has lots of conversations with people on his fire escape. And I, you know, I thought that was such a strange and almost allegorical situation that I'd have to use it. But there was no place for it.

WERTHEIMER: Mm-hmm. So you did - it didn't get in.

Mr. CONLON: Lots of stuff was cut.

WERTHEIMER: So when you started out writing about the world of policing, you first began with a memoir. When you moved over into fiction from writing your memoir, from writing a column, which, as you said, was a sort of a straight-ahead factual account of things that happened, did it feel different?

Mr. CONLON: It felt a lot freer. One of the reasons why I, you know, continue to work with people who are happy to work with me as a cop after having written a book is that I could go into other characters' personal lives and make them messy and make them conflicted and complicated in a way that writing nonfiction - I mean, other people's, aside from case work, and it was none of my business.

It felt freer. But I think I might have been - you know, that freedom itself was something I had a little trouble managing in the early drafts.

WERTHEIMER: How do your friends on the force feel about this, that you've written a book that describes, even if it's not absolutely literal, a lot of the things or the kinds of things that you've all experienced together?

Mr. CONLON: It's been overwhelmingly positive, because I'm just talking about what it's like to do this. And this is - you know, police work is, you know, sensationalized, and it's controversial, and it's many, many things. But I'm somebody who's proud of doing this job who has explained it in a very - and told stories about it in a pretty matter-of-fact way.

WERTHEIMER: And do you plan to continue to be a police detective?

Mr. CONLON: Sure. You know, I did not expect to be here, you know, 16-plus years ago when I first started walking that beat in housing projects in the South Bronx. And I think I know better than to predict but, yeah, I'll be here for a bit.

WERTHEIMER: New York City Detective Ed Conlon. His new novel is called "Red on Red."

Thank you.

Mr. CONLON: Thank you.

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