Celebrated NYPD detective and author, Ed Conlon, drew 104 years of family service in the Long Blue Line to a close two weeks ago with his retirement.
Conlon, who was born and resides in the Bronx, marched out of Police Headquarters to the skirl of bagpipes accompanied by his colleagues. Closing the policing chapter in his life to focus on his literary career came after much soul-searching, and after a career that was incredibly unique and accomplished.
From a fellow cop’s perspective, one of the most interesting aspects of Conlon’s career was the path not taken. Graduating with a Jesuit education from Regis High School, Conlon earned a baccalaureate degree, cum laude, from Harvard University. With such academic credentials, Conlon could have taken advantage of a range of assignments in the NYPD that would have insulated him to a great degree from the stark realities of patrol and detective work. Despite these options, he chose to serve in the trenches, first as a patrolman in Housing Projects in the South Bronx, and then in Bronx Narcotics, where he earned his detective’s gold shield and assignment to the 44 Detective Squad.
It was only after earning his spurs and the respect of his peers that he accepted an assignment outside of the Detective Bureau. In a program unique to the NYPD among municipal police departments, Conlon was called upon to become one of the few detectives assigned outside the U.S. to assist in counter-terror efforts. Conlon’s assignment, for the better part of the last two years, was as the NYPD liaison in The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
Beginning in 1907 with his great-grandfather, Sgt. Pat Brown, who joined the ranks of the NYPD and served for the next four decades, various members of Conlon’s clann distinguished themselves in the police and fire services. Conlon’s father, John, was briefly with the NYPD before commencing a full career in the FBI. Conlon’s uncle, also Eddie, was a career cop in the NYPD, retiring in 1985. The family’s roots in Ireland extend through Counties Cork, Sligo, and Mayo.
Conlon has always written, having achieved his Harvard Degree in English, and so with a talent for the written word, coupled with a detective’s perception, he has been able to explain the intricate relationships and interactions between the police and the public as few others can.
Conlon wrote a column as a young cop for the New Yorker magazine under the pseudonym Marcus Laffey. The series of columns that resulted, called “Cop’s Diary,” received great notice. He also achieved renown with a personal memoir of his first years on the job through the 9/11 attacks of ten years ago. This memoir, “Blue Blood,” also spoke of Conlon’s family tradition and the history and structure of the NYPD. The book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as a New York Times Notable Book and Best Seller.
Conlon has recently had published his first novel, “Red On Red,” a story of two partnered detectives, their cases, and the world they inhabit. Recent critical analysis in The Daily Beast/Newsweek called the novel a “dark and intensely brilliant story . . . To call it a buddy book — which on a basic level it is — ignores not just its literary merit, but its complex and penetrating psychological impact.” Conlon’s retirement from the NYPD to focus on his literary career is bittersweet, and does indeed close a chapter in the Long, and deep, Blue Line.
When did you decide on a career in law enforcement? Given your family history was it something you had always considered?
It crept up on me. The expectation in my family was that the next generation would do better: if the fathers were cops, the sons would be lawyers and judges, professionals. In my 20s, I wound up working in a criminal justice program — a job arranged by a family friend, a Jesuit named James Joyce — and I found myself drawn to the world of courts and crime. And after an early novel was set aside, I began writing magazine pieces about the city. The first was about riding the subways with a Regis friend who was a plainclothes transit cop, and most that followed had some police dimension.
I managed to make a living as a freelance writer for a bit, but it’s too much like playing the lottery. I decided I needed a real job, and I didn’t know anyone who talked about work the way cops did. Whether their stories were hilarious or horrifying, whether they saw themselves as hapless or heroic or something in between, they were in the middle of things, engaged, trying to help someone or solve a problem. Nothing else came close in appeal. I didn’t come on the Job to write about it. I took it to give me the freedom to write about whatever I wanted, knowing I’d get paid every other Thursday. Those were my intentions, anyway.
Do you approach your writing with a conscious effort to bring your readers to an understanding of a cop’s perspective?
To a degree, I think I did. No other profession is covered with the degree of silliness and sensationalism as the police, whether in the movies or in the media. I tried to write truthfully and carefully about what it’s like to be working cop, an active detective. I showed the New Yorker pieces to Chief Collins at the press office, and there was no effort made to slant or spin them one way or another. Sometimes he’d correct typos.
Tell us about the Marcus Laffey and New Yorker days. Why the pseudonym? What is the significance of the name?
Delia Laffey was my father’s mother, who arrived here from Sligo as a kind of indentured servant. Marc Deiter was a college roommate and later an Army tank commander who was killed in a motorcycle accident. I’d written for The New Yorker before I came on the Job, and they asked me to write about it. I was fairly new at the time, and I didn’t want cops to be suspicious of me, or to second-guess my motives. It was a matter of privacy, mine and my partners’.
Even after the publication of “Blue Blood” removed any anonymity you may have enjoyed, you chose to remain in a working detective squad, the 44. Why? What does the 44 Squad represent to you?
I stayed at the 44 another five years after the book was published. Even though the South Bronx is much safer than it used to be, it’s still a rough part of town. People keep beating, stabbing and shooting each other. It wasn’t dull. And the detectives aren’t either. They are strange and wonderful characters, and close friends. It always amazed me how a group of guys could be bickering over coffee club dues one minute, then leaping out to work a homicide in perfect unison the next. And most comedians aren’t half as funny as half the detectives in the 44.
In the midst of working a case or in a critical situation, did you ever find yourself thinking, “I need to remember this, this would make a good story”?
Sometimes that’s all that you have. Bronx juries have a way of ruining semi-happy endings.
I’ve never read a book that so accurately describes the nuances of city life and how cops relate to it as well as “Red On Red.” Did you find writing the novel easier or more difficult than writing your memoir, “Blue Blood”?
I thought it was easier, at first. I did the first draft pretty quickly, but my editor hated it. Part of the problem was that my notion of the plausible had been misshapen by the Job. My editor would point out a scene and say it was ridiculous, and I’d say, “It happened yesterday, and the real story is even crazier!” In non-fiction, the more outlandish the story the better, but fiction has to earn its way with the reader. You’re not winning an argument; it isn’t an argument. Five drafts later, I came to think of it as more like writing a song, and people walk away humming the tune or they don’t.
All the best of luck with “Red On Red.” Where to now?
Home to write. If it’s another seven years between books, I can’t blame it on the crime rate.