This detective’s-eye view of Washington, written by a former MPD (Metropolitan Police Department) officer, begins in the dead of winter. Detective Ezra Simeon, who does the narrating, has just been “detailed” (or relegated) to work in cold cases, having just contracted a case of stroke-like Bell’s Palsy. After being shifted again to homicide, he picks up a murder case involving some unlikely suspects and victims—a case which, in some of its details, closely resembles one of the cold murder cases he’s already worked on. As he gets nearer to the bottom of it, things take a startling, though not implausible, turn.
On the way there we follow Ezra through the day-to-day of police work: the office politics and paperwork, the subway accidents and subpoenas and DNA tests, the cold calls and interviews, and the endless driving (sometimes with a partner) from station to diner to Judiciary Square to crime scene and back again. As a camera, Ezra works beautifully. The workmanlike writing and laconic style convey authenticity; so does Ezra’s perpetual, carefully detailed fatigue. But when we’re alone with him and his thoughts in his cruiser or his Chinatown mouse-hole—and Swinson spends a lot of ink characterizing him—there often doesn’t seem to be quite enough there. We know his father was a Secret Service agent and that he (Ezra) grew up in D.C. We know he’s divorced, and that back in California, through his ex, he’d been mixed up with the punk music scene. (The author’s own bio is similar.) Apart from whisky and cigars, his sole hobby—and the detectives are depicted as living their work—seems to be chatting and meeting with his L.A. friend, Clem. There’s a lot of transcript-like dialogue and interrogation, too, which gets across Ezra’s shrewdness, but he himself never fully comes across. And there’s perhaps too much elaborated-on slapping of alarm clocks, sipping of coffee, fighting of traffic, and logging into computers: the tedium of the job could have been got across in some more efficient way.
Many readers will surely seek out this book, Swinson's first novel, which feels at times like a policeman’s diary, for its documentary aspects. Here it satisfies, with (among other things) up-close pictures of places like just-gentrifying Columbia Heights, Chinatown, and upper New York Avenue. There are few chronological cues—no TV shows, no movies, no period radio stations playing period Top 40. There’s an Xbox, though, and HDTV, and Adams Morgan (annoyingly Adam’s Morgan, every single time, in my Dymaxicon softcover) is already gentrified. All this puts the setting no later than the early 2000s, though, with those few cues, the story often feels as if it could be taking place at any point since 1991, the local end of the peak of the Great American Crime Wave, which was just starting to wane in the early 2000s. As people here never tire of saying, Washington (like most American cities) has changed a lot in twenty years. Along with giving us a readable story that only rarely bogs down, A Detailed Man captures that time when the Cool “Disco” Dan days had still not quite given way to Forbes Magazine’s redeveloped Cool D.C.
PHOTO CREDIT: Tony Webster, 2018. Reduced. Licensed by CC BY 2.0.