Two retired female cops talk fiction vs. reality (this interview was featured inCrime Reads)
Isabella Maldonado here, and I’m very honored to speak with fellow cop-turned-author Lissa Redmond. We have an eerily similar journey to writing crime fiction. We both went into law enforcement shortly after graduating from our respective universities. There are female police officers on most police agencies now, but we did it before it was cool! We both spent 22 years with a gun and badge before retiring. Lissa completed her career as a cold case detective on the City of Buffalo PD, while I retired as a police captain from the Fairfax County Police Department in the DC metro area. My last position was Commander of Special Investigations and Forensics.
After we retired, we each turned to writing crime fiction. I suspect the desire to set things right and solve cases is very strong in anyone who has worked them in real life. Fiction provides the satisfying ability to create a world that makes sense when the real world often doesn’t.Article continues after advertisement
Lissa and I have both published well-received novels and fans seem to enjoy the realism of crime stories told by people who’ve been there, done that, and bought the ballistic vest.
Isabella Maldonado: Lissa and I discovered we have a lot in common. We both retired from police work after 22 years on the force. We both decided to write crime fiction after hanging up our gun belts. Finally, we both draw from our experience to bring a dose of realism to our stories. Given our similar journeys, we thought it would be fun to compare notes.
Lissa Redmond: It’s always great to sit down and compare notes with cops from other cities. As much as the landscape may be different, it seems a lot of the experiences are similar.
IM: You were at the University of Buffalo when you took the exam to be a Buffalo City police officer. Did a recruiter corner you at career day on campus? What was the impetus behind a choice that was considered unusual for women at the time?
LM: I took the police exam because everyone I knew was taking the police exam. Buffalo had an extremely depressed economy in the eighties and early nineties. Plants had closed, factories had moved overseas, and Buffalo had slipped into decline. I was almost done with my degree (Interdisciplinary Studies with a concentration in Legal Studies) and it seemed to be a good fit.
IM: I had my fair share of hassles from male officers and inappropriate comments from members of the public when I showed up at a scene as a young patrol officer. When you first started out, did you find it tough breaking into the boy’s club?Article continues after advertisement
LM: I learned pretty quickly how important it was to be a “good sport” and to have a “sense of humor” even though I was boiling inside. It just made me want to try twice as hard to be the best cop I could be.
IM: Glad those days are behind us! Now that you’re retired, as a former cold case detective, do you enjoy watching any of the cold case television shows?
LM: It’s funny, the show Cold Case used to do flashbacks where they’d show the victims or suspects 20 or 30 years before and then cut back to the present to show how they’d aged. I would read a file and develop a mental picture of a witness or a family member and then feel that sense of shock when they walked through my office door. The long-haired hippie was now a balding, gray-haired, sixty-year-old man. They really nailed it.“I learned pretty quickly how important it was to be a ‘good sport’ and to have a ‘sense of humor’ even though I was boiling inside. It just made me want to try twice as hard to be the best cop I could be.”
IM: What do you see on television, in movies, or (gasp) in books about police investigations that sets your teeth on edge? Did you ever see or read anything that made you laugh out loud or smack your forehead?
LM: When I see a female detective carrying a purse to crime scenes. Or wearing a tank top. How about you?
IM: I always got a laugh out of the old TJ Hooker television show when Heather Locklear would race down the street in her skin-tight police uniform, blonde locks flowing in feathery waves behind her. Not only did the mostly unbuttoned shirt with its straining fabric preclude the use of a ballistic vest, but her cascading hair was an open invitation for someone to grab a fistful in an arrest situation. More recently, we were treated to Stana Katic sprinting alongside Richard Castle in spike stiletto pumps. In all my years on the force, I never once saw a detective teetering on six-inch heels or wearing a spandex pencil skirt—unless she was working undercover in a prostitution sting.
LM: In Buffalo even the prostitutes don’t wear six-inch heels or spandex skirts. Too cold!
IM: How do you balance what really happens during a murder investigation with what you must do as an author to create a riveting story?
LM: A story that stuck to strict police procedure would be very boring, especially cold cases. You are always waiting for something: a phone call, lab results, a witness to come in. I find myself skipping over a lot of monotonous parts of police work and launch straight ahead to the action. Leaving your reader waiting six weeks for DNA reports to come in would result in a lot of books put down and never picked back up. Your books do the same.
IM: I call it “veracity versus verisimilitude.” I initially had a hard time working out the details in my stories to ground them in reality while maintaining a breakneck pace and tension. For example, the Phoenix police department places any officer involved in a fatal shooting on administrative leave for 30 days. Sidelining my lead character for a month would put a serious damper on a high-octane thriller, so I had to find a legitimate reason for deviating from standard procedure. I taught myself to give the story the feel of reality, verisimilitude, in certain instances when adhering strictly to proper protocol would impede the reader’s enjoyment of the character’s journey. The trick is not to deviate too far from the mark. One of the ways you can tell if your book passes the smell test is if real cops like it. So far, so good!
LM: I was pleasantly surprised at all the great feedback I got from cops that I worked with. I purposely sprinkled a lot of Easter eggs around the books, things only Buffalo cops would know, and was delighted at how many of them picked up on the inside jokes.
IM: I did the same with the Phoenix police. Speaking of following procedure, what about stories where a detective does something so far out of line that he or she would get fired, but instead just gets told off? Did you ever fire an officer or detective?
LM: I was never in a supervisory position, just patrol officer and detective. I only wanted to be in charge of myself. You took another route. Was it difficult to manage all of those strong personalities?
IM: Absolutely. Because I was a captain, that meant I was management. One of my responsibilities was disciplining officers, detectives, and first line supervisors who violated rules and regulations. In fiction, police management (or “white shirts” as we were called in my department) are usually depicted as incompetent, corrupt, or politically-motivated toadies. The truth is, you see things differently when you make rank. You’re forced to think about the big picture, about setting precedents, about liability. With that in mind, I would have had to come down hard on my lead character, Veranda Cruz, for the stunts she pulls if she worked under my command. Your detective, Lauren Riley, colors outside the lines too!
LM: She definitely does. But both of our detectives put their families first as well. They want to follow the rules but when it comes to family, all bets are off.
IM: Yeah, neither of our lead detectives are good at following orders, which makes for a fun story, but tends to get you canned in real life. Consider Dirty Harry Callahan. There’s no way he would have been allowed to keep his badge, but he’s a lot of fun to watch. I try to keep a balance in mind when I write, bringing a more nuanced approach to how management handles the actions of a rogue detective.
LM: I agree. My detective takes way more risks and crosses more lines than I ever would have dreamed of doing in real life. It becomes a real tight rope act keeping her actions plausible and exciting at the same time.
IM: When you began constructing your lead character, Lauren Riley, what components of your career did you want to bring out in her?“My detective takes way more risks and crosses more lines than I ever would have dreamed of doing in real life. It becomes a real tight rope act keeping her actions plausible and exciting at the same time.”
LM: Loyalty, a commitment to finding out the truth, and an addiction to coffee. Your character, Veranda Cruz, is addicted to her mother’s Mexican cooking. Do you get a lot of response about that?
IM: Oh yeah! I’ve had so many readers write to tell me they get fierce cravings for Mexican food when they read my books. My agent tells me she must have a big bowl of chips and salsa before she looks at a manuscript from me. I don’t want to take responsibility for all the margaritas people consume though!
LM: Maybe we could start a new trend: Margaritas and Buffalo wings! Phoenix meets Buffalo.
IM: I like it! Speaking of our respective cities, you chose to write about the department where you worked. What challenges did that cause?
LM: I had to write characters who in no way resembled people I actually worked with. The police commissioner is a real person, but there had been several over my years on the department. I consciously had to write a commissioner who wasn’t like any of them. It was especially difficult because everyone in Buffalo is connected to everyone else in some way. I’ve heard it described as not a medium-sized city but just a big room. We all know each other. It’s hard to develop a character and then have to take out a trait because the guy you worked under 20 years ago had the same number of ex-wives. How about you?
IM: I stayed far away from my former department for my first series. I’ll include the Fairfax County police department in future books but opted for a clean break at the outset of my writing career. Since the FCPD is a large metropolitan police department, I wanted to write about a sizable agency. I’d moved to Phoenix after retiring and fell in love with its modern southwest vibe. The PPD has thousands of employees and covers over 500 square miles. Here was a city—and a department—I could sink my writer’s teeth into and get a lot of meat.
LM: Buffalo is the only department I ever worked for and I didn’t move away once I retired. I’ve often wondered how well I would have done in another city. Aside from being thousands of miles apart, what did you find different about the Phoenix police department from yours?
IM: That’s another thing I noticed. Each agency has its own culture, jargon, and organizational structure. I can tell when an author hasn’t done his or her homework when they’re writing about a Sheriff’s department in say, Montana, and the detective requests an ambulance by asking for a “bus.” That’s a term heard on television shows about the NYPD. A term that is definitely not universal in law enforcement nationwide. The writer should perform due diligence by researching the jurisdiction they wish to write about. Go on ride-alongs or attend the citizens’ police academy to pick up the vernacular unique to that agency. Interview retired cops and detectives. Study the org chart to be sure you correctly assign a homicide detective. In some departments, she would work in the Major Crimes Division, while in others, she would fall under the Violent Crimes Bureau. In some agencies, detectives are generalists, who investigate everything from larceny to child abuse to murder. I made sure to physically walk the halls of the PPD Violent Crimes Bureau, the Drug Enforcement Bureau, firearms range, and the headquarters building. The descriptions are accurate down to the color of the carpet.
LM: I could visualize Buffalo police headquarters in my sleep. I never had a problem writing a description of the offices, the hallways, or even streets around the building. Then the brass went and moved police headquarters on me after I finished the third book in my series. If I ever want to do a fourth, I’ll have to have someone take me on a tour. The irony of that is not lost on me!
IM: Time marches on! Its important to stay current on the department and the city you write about. The locals and even visitors will call you on it if you don’t. I’d love to see the new HQ in Buffalo sometime. Next time I’m in New York, we’ll have to get together for Margaritas and Buffalo wings.
LM: You’re on.