Over on Facebook, I mentioned that I had finished the third book in my Major Crimes Squad: Phoenix series (out of three contracted novels), and pal Rodney Hom asked how I researched such topics. I decided that the response was longer than a FB message could accommodate, so decided to post here instead.
Some background: my lovely and brilliant wife Marsheila (Marcy) Rockwell and I have both been intrigued by crime and criminals and what it takes to catch them pretty much forever (for me, starting with Hardy Boys novels at around age 7 or 8.) We’ve amassed a fairly large library of reference materials on such topics, including popular true crime, writer-oriented procedure manuals, academic publications, etc. So the first step for research, for me, usually comes with walking about five feet to the six-foot-tall bookcase that holds those.
One of the books on that bookcase is one I wrote. It’s called Criminal Minds: Sociopaths, Serial Killers & Other Deviants. It’s an authorized tie-in to the CBS-TV series Criminal Minds, and it explores the real crimes and criminals mentioned on the series in its first 5 seasons, as well as those whose crimes inspired episodes but were not mentioned directly. As you can imagine, it took a ton of research to figure those out, and that would’ve been a solid grounding in such matters even if I hadn’t already been grounded in such matters. One novel, the police-procedural/dark thriller Empty Rooms, came directly out of the experience of spending many months delving into such dark subject matter.
In addition to books, I’ve developed much useful knowledge from attending citizens’ police academies. Police departments and other law-enforcement agencies around the country put these on to teach local residents what their tax dollars are paying for, how cops do their jobs, and of course, provide some much-needed public relations. They’re typically free and very educational. I’ve attended them in Sierra Vista and Gilbert, Arizona. Each one includes a ride-along with a police officer or officers, so you can be out on the streets with them, seeing first-hand what a shift is like. I’ve done ride-along with various agencies, including the San Diego PD’s gang unit, the Douglas, Sierra Vista, and Gilbert Arizona PDs, and the US Border Patrol. I also can’t recommend too highly the Writer’s Police Academy, where writers are taught by professionals in various fields as well as other writers who are or have been law-enforcement professionals. It’s an annual event, and the instructors and classes offered change from year to year, so going more than once will always be valuable.
Then there’s the internet. I subscribe to various crime/law enforcement-related newsletters, including those from The Marshall Project, The Trace, The Crime Report, Lee Lofland’s The Graveyard Shift blog, the Writer’s Detective.com podcast, and others. I’ll update this post when others come in, because I can’t remember some of the more irregular ones.
There are also online groups comprising law-enforcement professionals advising writers, including the terrific Crime Scene Writers and Facebook’s Writer’s Detective Q&A (also connected to the podcast mentioned above).
It doesn’t hurt to befriend cops and ex-cops. A friend from college became one of the most celebrated detectives in the history of the LAPD’s Robbery-Homicide Division and an advisor to writers like Michael Connelly, James Ellroy, and others. After being out of touch with him for years, Mike Connelly connected us again, so he’s a phone call or a text away. For the MCS: Phoenix books, retired Phoenix PPD detective Timothy Moore was an invaluable resource and has become a good friend. Cops want you to get their jobs and their agencies right, and they’re usually happy to help. Speaking of which, police departments themselves often post valuable information on their websites. I downloaded the Phoenix PD’s Operations Orders Manual–1,117 pages of useful information–directly from their site. The LAPD’s Detective Operations Manual is available on theirs (so I snagged that, too, just in case).
Finally, of course, a lifetime of reading mysteries and procedurals from the likes of Connelly, Joseph Wambaugh, Ed McBain, Paul Bishop, Robin Burcell, George Pelecanos, Richard Price, and many others doesn’t hurt, either.
The Major Crimes Squad: Phoenix books will be published by Wolfpack Publishing in September, October, and November 2022. As soon as I have preorder info and cover art, I’ll post it on this blog, so please stay tuned!