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The Sirens of Suspense




BRIAN THIEM’s debut novel, Red Line: A Detective Matt Sinclair Mystery, the first of a three-book series was published in August 2015. Thiem spent 25 years with the Oakland Police Department, working Homicide as a detective sergeant and later as the commander of the Homicide Section. He also spent 28 years of combined active and reserve duty in the Army, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel. He was assigned to various Military Police and Criminal Investigation Division (CID) positions, including a tour in Iraq as the Deputy Commander of the Criminal Investigation Group for the Middle East. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing and currently lives in South Carolina.


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The gun bucked twice in Sergeant Sinclair’s hands. He quietly moved across the room in the darkness and took another slow and deep breath. He awaited the onrush of pain, expecting to fee the warm, sticky, and wet sensation of blood oozing from his body.

Sinclair had been shot before and knew the adrenalin from the fight could mask the pain temporarily. Pain that would eventually come like a red-hot poker thrust deep into his body, every nerve ending screaming simultaneously, followed by a wave of overpowering weakness, and then unconsciousness as his body goes into shock.

As I wrote that passage for Red Line, my heart was pounding and I had to wipe my sweaty hands on my pants several times before returning them to the keyboard. Although I write fiction—make-believe stories—by tapping into experiences from my thirty years of carrying a badge and gun for a living, I strive to create a sense of authenticity that resonates with readers.

There’s more to writing cops right in fiction than making sure the police characters carry the correct Glock or Sig Sauer handgun and don’t read a suspect his rights from a Miranda card the moment he or she slaps on the handcuffs as we see too frequently in the movies. It means writing police characters that think and act as real cops do.

Most people’s image of police officers comes from what they see during routine activities—when they’re pulled over for speeding or their house is burglarized—or the extremes that make the news, either amazing acts of heroism or the rare but newsworthy acts of police brutality or corruption. Unless they’re working in Mayberry RFD, where the only crime they handle is the theft of Aunt Bea’s apple pie from her kitchen window, real cops experience hundreds, or maybe thousands in some large cities, of significant-emotion incidents in a career. Mystery writers that don’t understand real cops are different from your average Joe or Jane, end up with police characters that don’t capture the subtle differences that make them resonate as authentic.

One of my favorite police procedural authors who gets it right is Michael Connelly, especially with his Harry Bosch series. Although Connelly never carried a badge for a living, he spent years working as a reporter on the crime beat for the Los Angeles Times, where he nearly lived with police officers and detectives from LAPD. As I read one of his novels, I can picture working homicide alongside Detective Bosch, because pieces of him—the way he acts and the way he thinks—remind me of the homicide investigators I worked with in Oakland. Bosch is obsessed with solving his cases, as are many of the best homicide detectives with whom I worked. Every homicide detective I know struggled to maintain a balance between their murder cases and their personal life, and as with Bosch, many sacrificed relationships and family for the job.

A few years ago, I grabbed a book by a best-selling author from the mystery section of my local library. As I read the scenes from the point of view of the police character, I wanted to gag. The voice was too soft—more feminine that masculine—and the character talked, acted, and thought as if he had stepped off the pages of a romance novel instead of worked his way through the ranks of a police department. Homicide detectives, even female ones, are calloused, jaded, and cynical. They fight to control those parts of themselves, especially in the public view, but they’re real. I’m not saying that police characters in novels should be a reincarnation of Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, but an author can’t pluck the hero from a Harlequin novel, hand him a badge and gun, and expect him to resonate as a real cop in a mystery novel.

I recently read another novel that went to the other extreme and heaped on every dysfunction and character flaw that’s ever been possessed by a cop, and turned the character into an alcoholic who snorted cocaine at work, slept with prostitutes, displayed overt racist and sexist behavior, beat confessions from suspects, and took graft from the mob. It made for an interesting character, but was unrealistic. Although the blue code, an unwritten rule that officers don’t report on their fellow officers, exists to some degree, it doesn’t include such erroneous behavior, and police officers today would not tolerate working with an officer such as that character, nor would a real-world police department keep him on the job.

Just as real people are a compilation of their life experiences, so are characters in fiction. An authentic police character’s background must contain the myriad encounters with human nature at its worst, because these kinds of incidents shape the personalities, thoughts, and responses of real police officers. Writing police characters that ring true requires understanding the nature of police work and the experiences that transform average, everyday people, into cops. I try to use my experiences and those of other officers I’ve worked with over the years to write as realistic and authentic crime novels as possible, even if it means sometimes writing with a racing heart and sweaty hands.




IS YOUR PROFESSION (CURRENT OR FORMER) MISREPRESENTED IN FICTION? Tell us or leave a comment for Brian. on the blog below or on our Facebook page and you’ll be entered to win an advanced review e-book copy of RED LINE! (US entrants only, please.)


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