Monday, August 4, 2014

Wordcraft -- Bringing crime fiction into the 21st century

If there’s one thing writers of fiction, bred in the bone liars that we are, can’t live without, it’s reality. Sometimes it’s a reality we know from our own experience. Often it’s reality whose experience we have to borrow from others. Which is why the local Mystery Writers of America chapter welcomes visits from Hutchins Chief of Police Frank McElligott. His decades of experience in undercover investigation of drug deals and money laundering give our crime writing the illusion of truth without requiring us to go through what he did.

Did he ever wish he’d gone into another line of work, an audience member at the MWA meeting Saturday asked.

“Well, there was the time when somebody was shooting at me and I was trying to be even smaller than I am,” said McElligott, who's on the wiry side, “and I wondered why I hadn’t just taken the fireman’s exam.”

Instead, he survived to make these suggestions on how to bring fictional detectives into the twenty-first century.

-- Think outside the box. Make that inside the box, of tampons that is. Who knew the absorbent little things could be a nark’s best friend? As McElligott described it, a supposed meth dealer was wearing a long-sleeved shirt (which he assured us meth users wear to hide the open sores on their arms). A seller demanded that the nark inject himself with the drug. Having prepared by taping a tampon to his arm at the cuff opening of his shirt, the nark obligingly injected the drug into the tampon. No career-killing on the job drug use and, McElligott said gleefully, “he had a sample” of the meth. (If our fictional detectives feel unmanly carrying tampons through their local store’s checkout line, maybe they should consider another line of work. Or bum them from their wives or girlfriends.)

-- Bling it if you got it. When our detectives move from entry level street narcotics work into collaring mid- to upper-level dealers, they’ve got to look prosperous to instill confidence in their victims. “The better the props, the better your case,” McElligott said, speaking nostalgically about the Rolexes, diamond rings, and miles and miles of gold chains, confiscated from criminals that he wore when working cases. (“It belongs to the city, not to me, but I get to play with it.”) When the City of Plano sold some of it confiscated jewelry, McElligott was able to buy back his favorite ring from the jeweler who bought it at auction. The cost of the ring would have been beyond his means as a police officer, except that the jeweler had removed the diamonds and replaced them with cubic zirconium look-alikes.

-- Bling isn’t just for wearing. Another of McElligott’s prized props for convincing buyers he was big-time was “a huge 45, chrome-plated, with a black pearl handle. Cops use Glocks. This wasn’t a cop gun.”

-- Take it to the cloud. Got overtime case research to do? Carrying stacks of books and paperwork is so last century, not to mention the potential for having evidence lost or stolen. Instead, while working on recent fraud cases, McElligott put his paperwork on flash drives or sent it to cloud online storage systems.

-- Or at least, to Google Earth. Part of the recent case involved the unglamorous-sounding practice of metal scrapping, including the dismantling of an entire functional bus for scrap. The loss of the bus, parked supposedly for repairs, might have gone unnoticed for a long time if Google Earth’s historical data hadn't documented the disappearance from its purported location. McElligott also recommends GoogleEarth for surveillance work. Not sure what booby traps may lie on the other side of that privacy fence around a suspected meth lab? The lifesaving answer may be at a detective’s fingertips.

After McElligott’s talk, cameras flashed. Everybody wanted a picture of him, or themselves with him. How much more dangerous is a detective’s work now that everybody and her brother has camera phones? Lots and lots. But if we’re trying to get our fictional detectives into lots and lots of trouble, remember that privacy is a thing of the past.

McElligott has spoken previously to the local MWA chapter. For information about their programs, see

(Next Monday, making “find and replace” our writing’s best friend, with a list of the words and phrases you’ll most want to replace.)

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