The Book Drop

 

David Swinson’s Long Road

from Cop to Crime Novelist

by Jon Michaud


In this month’s Book Drop, our librarian Jon Michaud speaks to crime fiction writer David Swinson, who worked as a nightclub promoter, movie producer, and policeman before publishing his first novel. Swinson discusses his unlikely connections to Timothy Leary and G. Gordon Liddy, and considers how screenwriting and police work influenced his Frank Marr trilogy.


Crime Song, the new thriller by David Swinson, features one of the most nauseating gross-out scenes I’ve read in recent years. Without getting into the nitty-gritty (and it’s very gritty), I can tell you that the scene involves the contents of a dying woman’s bedpan and two hog-tied, non-compliant, drug-dealing brothers who have information that Frank Marr, Swinson’s private-detective protagonist, needs in order to track down a killer. At one point during the interrogation, Frank has to remove the duct tape gag on the younger brother so that he can throw up. This reader nearly tossed his cookies in sympathy.

 

“I don’t need to defend the things I do because of necessity,” Frank comments afterwards, “especially when the only ones made to suffer are the bad guys.” Though Frank sees himself very much as a good guy, his actions, as in the scene mentioned above, frequently stretch the idea of “good” beyond even the most generous definition. A former D.C. cop forced into early retirement because of his drug addiction, Frank habitually engages in dubious behavior—impersonating an officer; stealing weapons and drugs from criminals; begging illegal favors from his former colleague's force. And then there’s the drug use. The quantity of cocaine snorted in this book rivals the consumption in The Wolf of Wall Street. And yet, as with so many of the flawed heroes in crime fiction, the reader pulls for Frank all the way through.

 

Crime Song is the second of David Swinson’s Frank Marr novels, following The Second Girl, published in 2016 (a third, Mouth of the River, is still to come). Like his protagonist, Swinson is a retired D.C. police officer. Instead of a drug habit, it's a writing habit that was behind Swinson’s decision to leave the force. Every aspiring writer takes his or her own unique path towards publication. Few writers have taken a route that is as convoluted as that of Swinson. He is the rare writer whose biography would make for excellent fiction.

 

The son of a Foreign Service officer, Swinson grew up in Washington, D.C., but also in Stockholm, Mexico City, and Beirut. The desire to write was there early on, Swinson told me in a telephone interview last week, inspired in part by a love of books handed down from his father. (Swinson recalls his father reading Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh to him at bedtime.)

 

Initially, Swinson's ambition was to be a journalist or historian, but after a stint at a two-year college in North Carolina, he moved to Cal State Long Beach to pursue screenwriting, drawn there by the program's renowned alumni, including Stephen Spielberg and Chris Carter. While living in California he became involved in the local music scene, first partnering with a girlfriend to open a (short-lived) record store in Seal Beach, and later working as a promoter and booker in Southern California music venues. At Bogart's, a "Top 40 club and meat market," in Long Beach, Swinson’s success in drawing crowds allowed him to engage in some surprising alternative programming. He started a Wednesday night series of interviews with members of the counterculture featuring figures such as John Waters, Henry Rollins, Hunter S. Thompson, and Jim Carroll. Swinson was also the first to pair Timothy Leary and G. Gordon Liddy in conversation, a two-man show that later toured college campuses around the country. Some of these conversations were recorded and released in 1990 on an album called "Soundbites from the Counterculture."

 

In the meantime, Swinson continued to work on screenplays, ultimately landing a deal with FineLine Features. Over drinks one night, Swinson, Leary, and the talent agent Bill Stankey conceived a motorcycle road movie in the tradition of Easy Rider. Written and directed by Abbe Wool (screenwriter of Sid and Nancy), and starring John Doe of the band X and Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys, Roadside Prophets, was released in 1992 and developed a modest cult following.

 

Feeling disenchanted with the movie business, Swinson made the unlikely decision to become a police officer. When I asked him what prompted such a radical career change, he protested that it seemed "very natural" to him at the time. “I asked myself: Is this what I want to do? To be a struggling independent producer and writer with the off-chance that I might hit something successful?" He noted that law enforcement was in his genes—his grandfather was a deputized A.T.F. agent and his father served in the Criminal Investigation Command (CID) while in the Army. Swinson quit smoking, started to exercise regularly, and applied to the D.C. Police Academy.

 

I asked him if the decision to become a cop was also motivated in part by his desire to write. Did he see it as an opportunity to acquire material for his fiction? Swinson responded, "Am I crazy enough to go and be a cop just to get experience to be a writer? No. I wanted to be a cop and it got into my blood. I didn't think I would stay that long. I was always the type of guy who wanted to move on. Next thing I knew, it was fifteen years."

 

Swinson began his law enforcement career as a uniformed officer. Later he worked on narcotics crimes as a plainclothes/undercover officer. In 1998, he was assigned to the Third District Detectives Office where he investigated a range of crimes, including burglary, armed robbery, and homicide. He was eventually promoted to detective and worked in the Special Investigations Bureau for Major Crimes, earning numerous decorations, including Detective of the Year for 2003. Throughout his career on the force, Swinson kept writing. "I'd work a 3-11 shift and then come home and write until 4 am," he told me. "I never wrote about anything that actually happened. It was all fiction."

 

I asked him which writers inspired him during this period. He again mentioned his father's influence, noting that he had inherited from his dad a library that included the works of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Swinson’s literary tastes are wide-ranging, from Charles Dickens and Marilynne Robinson to Raymond Chandler and Paul Auster, but he said, "those Martin Beck books changed my life as a reader."

 

After fifteen years, Swinson was able to retire from the Metropolitan Police and give himself over to writing. His first crime novel, The Detailed Man, was published in 2011 by a small press. "It was too procedural," Swinson observes now. He decided, "you know what, I'm just going to have fun and write something far outside myself." He'd been thinking about the character of Frank Marr for some time and he finally found a frame for his protagonist in his next novel, The Second Girl, a book about human trafficking and the drug trade.

 

I asked Swinson how police work had influenced his distinctively blunt and unadorned writing style. "It honed my skills," he said, "some of my affidavits in support of arrests and search warrants were forty, sixty, sometimes even a hundred pages long. You can't get poetic. I forced myself not to be poetic." Swinson says he still has all of his case files and that he rereads them while he's working on a book, "it helps." He also confessed that he abhors outlining because it reminds him too much of screenwriting.

 

When pressed to name his favorite crime novel, Swinson immediately cited To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. “It’s a book of every genre,” he said. “If published today, would it be YA? Would it be suspense? Would it be a thriller?” He read it first as a teenager and reread it before beginning work on The Second Girl. There may be a vast distance between Frank Marr and Atticus Finch, but each in his own way, is engaged in the same activity—seeing that justice is served. 

 

 

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The Book Drop is a monthly column of thoughts, trends, and tidings from the desk of our librarian, Jon Michaud. 

 

Jon Michaud is the author of the novel When Tito Loved Clara, named a best book of 2011 by the Barnes & Noble Review. He was Head Librarian at The New Yorker from 2003 to 2012. Prior to that, he worked in libraries at Time Inc. and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A regular contributor to The New Yorker’s Page-Turner and Culture Desk blogs, Jon also reviews books for The Washington Post. He lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with his wife and two sons where he is at work on a new novel.

 

You can find him on twitter @jonmichaud

 

 

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