MURDERATI WELCOMES MILES CORWIN

Stephen Jay Schwartz

My first novel, Boulevard, would not be what it is if I hadn’t discovered Miles Corwin’s brilliant nonfiction book Homicide Special. As a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Miles was given unprecedented access to the elite Robbery-Homicide Division unit of the LAPD where he spent a year of his life shadowing the homicide detectives on their daily call-outs. Homicide Special became my Robbery-Homicide bible and by the time I finished writing my novel I had read Corwin’s book at least five times. His writing is so lean and vivid that I jumped at the chance to read his other nonfiction books, The Killing Season and And Still We Rise.

All of his work captures the daily lives of hardworking detectives, cops, teachers and social workers as they navigate a dark, uncertain world few of us will ever observe first-hand. Miles brings you to the heart of it. His prose is fantastic and he knows his stuff. When reading his nonfiction work I thought that if this guy ever tackled fiction he’d be one of the best. Well, he’s done it. His first novel, Kind of Blue, came out last year to rave reviews. And, as I suspected, his novel leans heavily on his experience with the Robbery-Homicide Division. I was fortunate enough to share the dais with Miles and Marcia Clark recently on a panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and I loved hearing him talk about his journey from journalist to nonfiction author to fiction author. He’s a fascinating and talented man and you’re going to love getting to know him. Please welcome Miles Corwin…

 

The day I received permission from the LAPD to write a nonfiction book about the elite Homicide Special unit was the day I began thinking of writing a novel.

The chief of police agreed to give me complete access and allow me to shadow the detectives from the time they received the homicide call-outs, to crime scenes, death notifications, autopsies, witness interviews and, finally, to arrests. I knew this was a remarkable opportunity to write a compelling nonfiction book, but it was also a great opportunity for a crime novelist. During the year I tracked the detectives I always carried two steno pads. On one pad I took copious notes for the nonfiction book – Homicide Special.

On the second pad I jotted random notes for a crime novel I intended to write – Kind of Blue.

I included amusing dialogue, humorous anecdotes, unusual things I saw at crime scenes, mannerisms of the killers and the cops, or anything else that I thought would give a crime novel a sense of verisimilitude.

During the course of that year I had lunch every day with homicide detectives and listening to them swap stories was also a great source of material. I stole a few of those anecdotes and reshaped others. One detective said that when he worked Hollywood Homicide, he’d frequently get a call in the middle of the night, awake from a deep sleep, pick up the phone, and always hear the same question: “Are you naked?”

It was a supervisor’s greeting before he dispatched the detective to a homicide scene.

I filed this away and figured this could provide a light note in a dark novel.

By the end of my year with the unit, I had filled numerous notebooks with material. I had a lot of ideas about plot and dialogue and forensics, but I still didn’t have a main character – the most important element of any crime novel.

One morning, the great crime novelist James Ellroy arrived at the unit. He was researching a cold case for a GQ magazine article. Ellroy took a group of detectives to lunch at the Pacific Dining Car near downtown Los Angeles and I joined them. Ellroy, a terrific raconteur, told us he’d been arrested a number of times as a young man. One night, he said, he was busted after breaking into an apartment and he happened to look at the metal name plate of the LAPD cop who was handcuffing him. The cop’s name was Moscowitz. Ellroy said that he thought to himself at the time, “What’s a Jew doing as a street cop?”

I thought this was an interesting question. And I figured if this question intrigued Ellroy, it might interest readers. So I decided that my protagonist would be a Jewish detective. This clicked because I’m Jewish and I got to know a few Jewish cops during my year at Homicide Special. One told me that when he graduated from the police academy, all the other families seemed so happy and proud of their sons and daughters. His family, he said, was not particularly pleased. I thought this was interesting and could provide some good conflict in the novel between my main character and his family, particularly his mother.

I now had everything I needed to begin the novel. I was faced, however, with a great challenge. In some ways, I felt I was hamstrung because I knew too much. I discovered that much of detective work is, frankly, boring – examining records, perusing documents, tracking down witnesses, sifting through forensic reports, and other elements of the paper chase. A novel dominated by this kind of detective work simply wouldn’t interest readers. So I had to find a way to keep the book realistic, but insure that the narrative was compelling enough to keep readers reading.

When I started writing Kind of Blue, I felt a bit insecure because I had never published any fiction. But I also realized that I had a great advantage over most crime writers because I had a fount of specialized knowledge to draw from. I had worked as a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times for a number of years. And before writing Homicide Special, I spent six months following two homicide detectives in South-Central Los Angeles for the nonfiction book The Killing Season. I learned a tremendous amount from the two detectives, Pete Razanskas and Marcella Winn, and I was able to transmogrify some of their knowledge and experience into passages for my novel.

Most reporters believe there is no such thing as too much access. I discovered that there is a downside to an abundance of access. When the Homicide Special detectives began investigating the murder of Robert Blake’s wife, I was with them every stop of the way. At the time, this seemed like a serendipitous opportunity. During the trial, however, when I was cross-examined by Blake’s attorney for more than five hours, and he tried to use me – unsuccessfully, I believe – to sully the reputation of the LAPD, I had second thoughts about the access I had pursued. But after writing Kind of Blue, I realized that being grilled in a criminal trail by a defense attorney, just as the LAPD officers had been, provided me with more insight into what detectives endure, insight that I could parlay into realism for my fiction.

Corwin, a former crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, is the author of three nonfiction books: The Killing Season, a national bestseller; And Still We Rise, the winner of the PEN West award for nonfiction and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year; and Homicide Special, a Los Angeles Times bestseller. Kind of Blue is his first novel. The next book in the Ash Levine series, Midnight Alley, will be released in April 2012.

Corwin lives in Altadena with his family and teaches at the University of California, Irvine.

(Please give Miles a hearty Murderati welcome.  I am still traveling overseas and will do my best to pipe in with comments in-between stops)

32 thoughts on “MURDERATI WELCOMES MILES CORWIN

  1. Tammy Cravit

    I'm curious about how much convincing it took to get LAPD to give you that sort of unfettered access. I know when I was freelancing for my local newspaper and wrote a feature about an old unsolved local murder (in fact, the murder upon which Sue Grafton's "Q is for Quarry" was based), getting access to information from law enforcement took no small amount of doing, and the access they gave me to the case information there was far from complete and unfettered. I'd be curious to know how you sold LAPD on the idea.

    Is there any chance Homicide Special will be released as a Kindle book anytime soon?

  2. Dana King

    Miles writes the kind of true crime books I love to read. I'm not into the entire volumes that cover a single, sensational crime. Those crimes are aberrations. The books that interest me go from case to case, showing how the cops respond to different situations. Connie Fletcher set the gold standard, with David Simon's HOMICIDE a worthy complement. Several cops have also written excellent books. Looks like I can add Miles Corwin to my list of non-fiction I need to read.

    Thanks to both Stephen and Miles for a post well worth reading.

  3. Stehen Jay Schwartz

    I'm boarding an eleven hour flight without wifi access, folks. I'll miss you. I can't wait to read everyone's comments tonight. Thanks for joining us today, Miles!

  4. Lisa Alber

    Hi Stephen,

    Safe journeys. Hope you come back with stories to tell!

    Thanks for introducing Miles — I'll have to read both his nonfiction AND fiction! Great post, Miles!

  5. Miles Corwin

    Thanks, Alafair. Most people who write memoirs — shouldn't. Their life isn't that interesting. Ellroy has written two…and he still has a lot of material left!

  6. Miles Corwin

    Tammy,

    When I wanted to write my first book about the LAPD — the Killing Season — the department was at a low point. This was the mid-1990s and the LAPD was being killed by the media. Rodney King, O.J., etc. I wanted to follow two homicide detectives in South Central for a summer. The department figured this might give an alternative view of how cops are portrayed. The LAPD was not allowed to view the manuscript before publication. And it was not my intention to glorify the officers, just tell it like it is. After the book came out, detectives figured they could trust me. That's how I got access for Homicide Special.

    Best,

    Miles

  7. Miles Corwin

    Stephen,

    Thanks for that wonderful introduction. If I pre-decease you, I want you to give the eulogy at my funeral πŸ™‚

    Best,

    Miles

  8. ZoΓ« Sharp

    Hi Miles

    Erm, after your comment to Stephen – are you feeling OK?

    Welcome to Murderati. Great blog. Definitely wants to make me look out all your work, both nonfiction and fiction. We all love to feel we are reading something with that extra layer of reality and authenticity behind it, and it sounds like you have that with some to spare.

    Was there anything that you witnessed, that you did not put into your novel because you feared noboby would believe you?

  9. Sheri Hart

    Great post Miles. Thanks for the insight into how you translated your experiences into your fiction work.

    I really should stop visiting here. It's the most expensive blog on the net. Everytime I come my TBR pile gets higher.

  10. Miles Corwin

    Tammy,

    P.S. I'm not sure about the E-book prospects for Homicide Special, since it was released some years back.

    Also, I think the LAPD was willing to take a chance on me with The Killing Season because I'd covered crime for the L.A. Times and had written quite a bit about homicide detectives. So I was a known quantity. And as I said, the department was willing to take a risk because they felt the only thing being written about the LAPD at the time was negative. Even if my portrayal wasn't necessarily positive they hope, at least, it would present a many-faceted portrayal of cops.

  11. Miles Corwin

    Zoe,

    I can't think of anything. With the proliferation of off-the-wall crime shows, however, people will believe anything these days.

    Best,

    Miles

  12. Pari Noskin

    Miles,
    I'm so glad to welcome you to Murderati. I hope you'll write another blog for us again. Really interesting information and ZoΓ« is right that your bona fides make your work especially enticing.

  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Sold! I just ordered Homicide Special and then realized I HAVE Kind of Blue – I picked it up somewhere because I'd read the first couple of chapters and thought, "How great, an Orthodox detective." And then the TBR pile ate it, apparently.

    Now I have incentive to find it. Thanks for being here, Miles.

    Also, you get points for using one of my favorite words, "transmogrify."

  14. Miles Corwin

    Alexandra,

    I hope you like Kind of Blue. Let me know what you think when/if you finish it.

    Best,

    Miles

  15. Reine

    Miles, I love this post, and I'll be reading your books, soon. Thank you. And thank you, Stephen.

    My parents lived in Altadena, too. I always thought the canyon over by the Gerrish swim club holds a lot of mystery fiction potential as well as the real kind.

  16. lil Gluckstern

    I really liked "Kind of Blue." It's funny because there still was an element of surprise that the policeman was Jewish. Old biases or preconceived notions die hard. (I blame my family πŸ™‚ ). I look forward to more Ash, and will check out your non-fiction books. Nice to see you here. (Stephen will be back, right?)

  17. Judy Wirzberger

    Ok. I'm a fan. If your books suck my interest in as rapidly as your blog did, reading both your fiction and non fiction is going to be a great investment of my time.

  18. David Corbett

    I've crossed paths with Marcia twice recently, and we've traded tales on LA crime life. Turns out we share an admiration for defense lawyer Don Re, who I first met working on the DeLorean case. Little did I know, Marcia started out as a defense lawyer, and looked up to Don as a God, but finally couldn't do what defense lawyers do. We also traded notes on how the DA's office's handling of the Michael Jackson case (I worked the civil case), poisoned the water between that office and LAPD.

    Miles, I'm sorry I haven't read your work, but I'll correct that now. I'm working with local cops on a book while I also train for their civilian volunteer program. I live in Vallejo, the first CA city to file for bankruptcy, and the force went from 154 to 90 cops, with one of the highest per capita crime rates in the bay area. We have a serious gang problem, mostly blacks and latinos, though this also used to be an HA haven, plus we've got a lot of unlicensed pot dispensaries that have a nasty habit of getting ripped, and a meth epidemic that creates, among other things, the most ingenious copper thieves you'd ever want to know about.

    But it's not the port of entry or the vast sociological landscape of LA by a long long long shot. I can only imagine the eye-opening view of your city — and by extension, this country — that following LA cops provided. Every time I talk to a cop I learn something new, about my city, about its people, about the idiot savant ingenuity of most criminals, about the dangers of poison oak when chasing fugitives after a high-speed chase — and about clever ways to tell if your daughter's boyfriend is stashing pot in his car.

    Thanks for taking the time with us, and your books are now on order.

    As for Ellroy — ever hear the story of why he gave up drinking?

  19. Miles Corwin

    David,

    I don't know that story about Ellroy. Can you pass it along? Your area is an interesting and under-reported area for crime reporting. When I was a reporter for the L.A. Times, I always enjoyed getting out of town and writing the unexpected crime story.

    Best,

    Miles

  20. David Corbett

    Okay, you asked for it.

    Ellroy remembers that he started drinking heavily in a bar in LA — he was in, I think, his 20s at the time. He blacked out, and the next thing he recalls is that he woke up in a hotel room in San Jose beside a 300 pound woman — and there was $100 in HIS pocket.

    Hasn't had a drink since.

  21. Miles Corwin

    David,

    The surprising thing is not that he quit drinking, but that he still had the cash in his pocket. Thanks for passing along the story.

    Best,

    Miles

  22. Miles Corwin

    David,

    P.S. I read the Ellroy message too quickly…as I was banging out responses…

    Now I get it! Very amusing.

    Best,

    Miles

  23. Reine

    Hah! Thanks, Miles. Eaton Canyon it is. We're actually from Salem, Massachusetts with occasional forays out west.

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