Book Review: Blue Blood by Edward Conlon
The Irish NYPD officer is a stereotype that has doggedly endured in popular culture. Flush-faced, portly and very possibly crooked he continues to crop up everywhere from The Departed to The Simpsons. Even while the real life streets of New York are policed by boys in blue of all colours, their fictional counterparts stubbornly retain their lilting brogues and ruddy cheeks.
So in some ways Edward Conlon was up against it with Blue Blood, his lengthy and ambitious memoir of a fourth-generation Irish-American police officer's life on the beat. In addition to the tiresome Irish cop stereotypes our imaginations are already saturated with jostling representations of the cops of the Big Apple. From NYPD Blue to Law & Order they all blend into one after a while.
In his nuanced and epic account of six years with the force Conlon lays waste to the cliches and tells a tale that is by turns lyrical, gritty and highly compelling. Coming from a long line of Irish-American cops (he counts back four generations) he was already steeped in the lore, but an expensive Harvard education was supposed to elevate him to a more white-collar career.
It did initially but in 1995, with his writing career stalling, the lure of the "family business" and a steady pay cheque became irresistible. His first two years were a baptism of fire as he was assigned to the mean streets of the South Bronx -- one of the roughest and poorest areas of New York City. This part of the book contains some antic accounts of life on the beat -- more America's Dumbest Criminals than CSI:NY.
In one case Conlon describes a man breaking into a hospital to steal some headed notepaper, so that he can write to his ex-girlfriend: "You got AIDS bi**h" (which of course she would never suspect was a send-up). In another instance he describes himself tip-toeing through a deserted apartment in search of a demented cat, which he tries to subdue with a can of mace.
Conlon starts out with lofty ideals of the type of law and order he will impose and traces his faint affection for the petty criminals of the Bronx back to "college liberalism or Irish sentiment" -- but soon becomes jaded and is transferred to narcotics.
Here we get a dose of the bewildering nomenclature of NYPD code talk (having a "cold" when they call in sick is not acceptable; having "flu-like symptoms" is) and a look at the morally dubious methods by which the cops keep their informants sweet -- it can boil down to enabling drug addicts to remain drug addicts. Conlon also gives a real flavour of what it is like to be in what is a fairly low-paid and tedious yet high-risk job. As someone who has seen the heavy handedness of the cops on New York's streets I now have slightly more sympathy for the way they go about their job. Later we see him sifting through the grim debris of the World Trade Center and through Staten Island rubbish bags for human remains.
As much as it's a gritty ground-level view of the mean streets of the big city there is a strong sense reading this that Conlon actually went into the job with an anthropological interest in the situations he found himself in. The text is liberally seasoned with quotes from writers such as Dante and it would be impossible to remember so precisely many of the scenes described if he hadn't been writing about them at the time. Indeed a few years into his career he began writing about his life for The New Yorker and earned the nickname 'Poe' (as in Edgar Allen) from his colleagues.
At times one may wish that Conlon hadn't written down quite everything that happened to him. This is a doorstep-sized volume and some passages could certainly have been edited out. At times he could have fleshed out some recollections more at the expense of trying to keep the narrative rattling along so briskly. And while his lengthy digressions are informative -- I came away from this with a clearer understanding of how crime policies of Mayor Giuliani's era are still affecting the drug trade on the streets today -- sometimes the social history could have been pruned somewhat.
This book has actually been out for a few years in the States, where it was a bestseller and garnered rave reviews, but was deemed too local for a worldwide audience. It's possible that the success of The Wire has given the publishers the impetus to release it over here. Either way it's an excellent read and worth the money. And given Conlon is still on the force there may even be a sequel.