Books: Cops and robbers in the Big Apple...
Irish emigrant's tale of life in the NYPD has it all
Published 26/04/2015 | 02:30
NYPD Green opens with an explosive prologue. Luke Waters is nine years old, growing up in Finglas and at the moment heading to the Johnston, Mooney & O'Brien bakery to meet his father. When he arrives, a gang of masked criminals are in the middle of a hold-up.
One shoves a gun in his face. Their leader smiles at the boy from beneath his mask and ruefully declares the heist to be a bust. They leave. Luke later discovers that that leader was none other than Martin Cahill, AKA The General: Ireland's first crime "superstar".
It's a great opening, and very fitting for a memoir about real-life cops and robbers; you could nearly see that as the first crime foiled by Luke Waters.
He'd always wanted to join the Garda Siochana, like his grandfather and older brother before him. As you'd gather from the title, he eventually does fulfil that ambition and become a cop - but 3,000 miles across the Atlantic in the world-famous New York Police Department.
His grades in school, especially in Irish, hobble Luke's initial attempts to make Templemore. He repeats the Leaving twice, finally scraping through. To kill time before taking the Garda physical, Luke heads to America in 1985. Those intended few months turn into a quarter of a century.
An illegal immigrant, working as a barman, he throws himself into life in the self-styled "Capital of the World". There are few cities like NYC: every sort of person, building, event or adventure one could desire, all within easy reach. It's the definitive melting-pot, a tremendous smash-up of cultures, races, inspirations and historical currents, corralled by geography and unified by an all-embracing American mythology.
Luke loves it there, makes good money, meets celebrities from time to time (baseball legend Daryl Strawberry, TV even-bigger-legend Telly "Kojak" Savalas); there's no question of returning to dreary Ireland. After a few years, he applies for legal residency in the States - the famous Donnelly Visas of 1988 - and marries Cavan girl Susan. By 1993, he's tired of schlepping kegs and mixing cocktails, and applies to the NYPD.
Amusingly, his entry to this bastion of law and order depends on Luke, and others, breaking the rules: one powerful Irish connection fast-tracks his citizenship (a prerequisite for the police force). And later on he's promoted from a dull "pickpocket" detail to a coveted spot in narcotics, ahead of schedule, because the boss is a fellow Irishman.
Luke cheerfully admits all this, and to be honest - I'm sure Fintan O'Toole or Richard Boyd-Barrett would wince here - it made me like him more. I know, I know, technically it's cronyism, it's wrong; I accept that. But such is the way of the world, and he's honest about it, and there's no real harm done. For me, it showed someone who's practical, flexible and plucky, even a bit cheeky: not bad qualities to possess when pounding the mean streets of New York.
More importantly, pulling some strings is a relatively venial sin. There are rules, and then there is the law, and you're in no doubt as to Luke's respect for, and strict adherence to, the latter. As he says towards the end of the memoir: "Although I made plenty of mistakes, I never took a dime I wasn't entitled to, never set up a perp for a crime he didn't commit… (and never) had to pull the trigger off the shooting range."
Anyway, thus begins a career in law enforcement of almost two decades, filled with colourful stories. Luke does "buy and busts" on drug dealers, investigates homicides, interrogates suspects, pats down the bad guys for weapons, chases the money. He helps with the clean-up after 911 - the smell of all that death and destruction was the worst thing. He spends several years in The Bronx: a proper lawless "Wild West" on the modern-day east coast.
He meets Ricky Schroeder, the blond angel from The Champ, now an adult preparing for a role on NYPD Blue. He busts Lillo Brancato, the young guy taken under a gangster's wing in A Bronx Tale, now a criminal and helpless drug user.
The most shocking case is the "Binns baby", where a 14-year-old rape victim threw her newborn infant out the window, to its death. The funniest incident is when Luke inadvertently insults an heiress: some overly-precious old bat complaining about a urinating dog on a posh street with a "no dogs" sign, to which he deadpans: "maybe Fluffy can't read the sign."
(There's more of this Dublin wit, too. Bored of a security detail, he says: "If I were to die now, someone else's life would flash before my eyes." Later, after a crippled man opens fire on the street, Luke describes it as "the world's first limp-by shooting".)
Late in his career, he becomes a de facto Fed: temporarily deputised to work with the FBI on a major organised crime case. That's a whole other level of police-work, in terms of resources and muscle. They get their man (their men), but things turn a little sour for Luke when he misses out on a promotion. He decides to "hand in his papers", and now lives with his family in Cavan.
NYPD Green will, I imagine, sell like gangbusters. It has everything, really, that an Irish audience could want: a likeable, cheerful main character, a story of emigration and success on foreign shores, and perhaps, most of all, cops. New York cops, at that. We can't get enough of them in movies and TV shows and novels (I've even, God help me, written a New York-based thriller).
The writing is only functional; all memoirs seem to me to be written/ghosted in the same flat style, making them almost interchangeable on a sentence-by-sentence level. So if fine prose is absolutely necessary for you to enjoy a book, you might be disappointed.
But if you're not madly bothered about style, and simply want a cracking story - with the added edge of true-life - NYPD Green tells a very good one: a Finglas-man in New York.
Darragh McManus's Young Adult novel Shiver the Whole Night Through is out now.
Hachette, tbk, 289pp
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie