Tales From The Blue Line : #1

This is the first in a new ongoing series of articles by Rob Riley.
Rob is a good friend of ours and a retired Milwaukee Police Detective. He’s also the author of a couple great books, PORTRAIT OF MURDER and DEAD LAST with more to come.

When I review my early life I see no clues as to why I became a police officer. Not one. A writer? Yes. A cop? Never. I was unfocused and disorganized, spending all my time dreaming of doing anything other than what I was supposed to be doing. Attention Deficit Disorder hadn’t been discovered (some argue ‘invented’), but when I read the descriptions of the affliction, I was reminded of a cheerful, yet disinterested younger me.

The fact that I became a “hard-boiled detective” in adulthood is one for the books…quite literally. I learned early on during my serious writing instruction that clever sayings have a short life before becoming clichés; something people want to neither hear, nor be near.

These returning thoughts are written now as a way to display my past…my beginning.

By the time most graduating high school students with modest GPA’s hit the streets, they are the newly constructed mold of what we expect to see: an unimpressive tool-like creature, plodding around the neighborhood in search of purpose. On occasion we are surprised, and on even more rare occasions we surprise ourselves. It was one of these rare occasions when I surprised myself, and everyone who knew me, by becoming a police aide for the Milwaukee Police Department in 1969.

Being around on-duty policemen was an eye opener. No shock there- I was smart enough to know that everything I’d been doing had been wrong. They were all organized, responsible people who were doing an extremely important job. Something awoke in me- a part I didn’t know I had. It was a sense of responsibility. Emulating these men was easy for me, and I started right away. Doing the relatively mundane office work of stoking paper reports into aged, creaky metal cabinets led to occasionally answering phone calls from citizens. I found I didn’t just enjoy it- I was good at it. The captain of the 7th Precinct in Milwaukee told me so. He told me I had ‘brainpower.’

Rob Riley 1977 while working undercover. Rob is in the t-shirt with the #10 on it, and the crew was getting ready to head to Summerfest.

Rob Riley 1977 while working undercover. Rob is in the t-shirt with the #10 on it, and the crew was getting ready to head to Summerfest.

In 1971, at age 21, I was promoted to the formerly called ‘rank of patrolman.’ On went the blue uniform for a few months while I walked a beat and rode quietly along with senior officers in marked police squad cars.

Then, with the changing of the times, off came the uniform, and on went the so-called hippie apparel worn by certain members of society at that time. My short hair grew quickly, hanging past my shoulders in a ragged mess. A patchy beard sprouted on my extremely boyish face, and I was scooted to the dark, back rooms of the narcotics squad.

I was undercover. A ‘narc.’ Revered and respected by many of my fellow officers, and hated to a dangerous degree by the element of society I was now ordered to infiltrate. I would spend my days and nights looking to score dope on the streets, cursing ‘The Man’ during protest marches, and loitering the increasingly dangerous streets of Milwaukee.

I was in.

I spent seven years undercover before returning to uniform for a short while to regain sanity. Then it was back to the narcotics squad where, thanks to many crazy incidents, I would collect the stories and experiences necessary to write my novels. One incident in particular sticks out in my mind…

I was sent to a house in a very bad neighborhood where heroin was being sold. An informant had introduced me to the main dealer, and there was a constant stream of purchasers coming and going. Two narcotics detectives, dressed in regular street clothes, were assigned to cover me while I made the purchase. They parked about a block away in an old junker car. I went to the rear door, knocked, and was led into the hallway. The kitchen door opened, and a few people in the room strained to get a good look at me. When they stopped and relaxed, the dealer sold me heroin. Simple as that.

This was the 1970’s- there were no microphones taped to my chest (or any other body part, which is a story for another time), nor was there any radio contact. I had no gun. I had no badge. I merely had my raggedy hair partially covering my blanched face and meek smile. Oh, and the 25 bucks it cost to buy the drugs. I was alone with no means of contacting the people who were “covering” me.

After returning to the car – and believe me, these two detectives looked like hippies
themselves – I handed over the drug evidence and explained the details of the purchase. I then asked: “Exactly how was it that you were ‘covering’ me?”

The passenger dick smiled while turning to look at me and said, “Our job is to call the regular cops and seal off the crime scene if you’re murdered. We then make sure the police photographer gets good shots of your corpse. We then call the Medical Examiner to convey you to the morgue.”

He turned back to the front. “That’s our job. What da ya think?” He and his partner, and then believe it or not I, started laughing uproariously.

At age twenty-nine I was promoted to detective, and spent the next twenty-two years investigating major crimes. Short hair, suit and tie, the whole cliched deal. I lived a normal off-duty life with my wife and two children; everything I could hope for. Yet, there was something missing.

A seed planted in my earliest childhood days began sprouting and taking over my consciousness. I wanted to expand my writing from formal police reports to that of the fiction I had been reading. I started with short stories. Quickly, the belief that I could write novels pushed the short story thing out of the way. I took some short story correspondence courses and got nothing published. Some gracious and patient instructors taught me the rules that not every novice has the luck of learning.

In my early forties I reached out and began a thirteen-year novel writing class. Six novels later (none of them published), and I was beginning to question my path. My instructor, who quickly became one of the best friends I’ve ever had, ordered me not to give up and quit. He looked me in the eye and said that I should see him as my police captain who was giving me a direct order.

“You’ve got what it takes to sell novels,” he constantly encouraged.

Since I was enjoying myself and receiving encouragement from my teacher and fellow students, I stuck with it. I started with horror fiction- an interest that arose from my profound childhood love of Edgar Alan Poe. I was still a cop, and doing police fiction would have been what they used to call a “bus man’s holiday,” – spending your off time to write about your career. I never considered it.

When I was fifty I retired from the police force after thirty-two years of service. Coincidentally (or not, if you believe in fate) I read “The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler- an iconic, best selling crime mystery writer from the 1930s through the 1950s. I was mesmerized. Not only because of the great story telling, but the style. The so-called “noir-esque” style of the cynical, not-so-bound-by-the law private detective being written about during that era: Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane, and others.

I loved everything about these stories. The detectives: Philip Marlowe by Chandler, Sam Spade by Hammett, and Mike Hammer by Mickey Spillane. Not to mention their dames with soft shoulders and loose legs, and the bad guys who possessed many of the same personality traits as the PI’s. The darkness of it all… chilling…overwhelming. To me, anyway.

I became a crime mystery fiction writer, using the first person style (a la Raymond Chandler) to delineate the mess of a life of Jack Blanchard: a former Milwaukee Police Detective who quit the force in a huff to become a private investigator and get away from the stupid politics, slime ball crooks, and witless bosses. Though, with any good detective story, we know the minute you request a quiet life is the moment things become truly interesting…I guess not all detective stories are fiction.


Follow Rob on Facebook