Book review: Officer Down by Theresa Schwegel

Officer Down
Theresa Schwegel
UK publisher Quercus, US Macmillan, 2005

Officer Down has a very exciting start, in which Chicago police detective Samantha Mack fills in for a sick colleague on patrol, hence becoming directly involved in taking down a drug dealer. Unfortunately, though, it is Sam’s partner Fred who is shot and not the drug dealer. Sam is injured in the process and when she regains consciousness from her head wound it transpires that she’s being held to blame as there is no evidence of any other perpetrator and, of course, she and Fred had not waited for back-up before entering a dark house alone so there are no witnesses to Sam’s befuddled version of events.

So far, so good – the book is written in gutsy, hardboiled prose (albeit in the present tense, which I don’t usually like but is done well here), and the protagonist is a tough, professional yet emotional female. Yet, once Sam is put on administrative leave while the incident is investigated, the pace slows down for about 150 pages and I found it hard to remain engaged in her see-saw emotions, hair-trigger behaviour and a general lack of forwards motion in the plot.

Essentially, Sam decides to investigate the botched takedown herself in order to clear her name, as she cannot tell who to trust among her police colleagues and the Internal Affairs department, who are supposedly getting to the bottom of what happened. Sam’s task is complicated because of her feelings for a fellow officer, as well as her feelings for her dead ex-partner. She becomes involved in rounds of alcoholic binges (she often buys take-out food but is usually distracted before she can eat it), then visits the widow and, later, another woman who is part of a love-triangle which includes Sam. Inbetween the bars and inconclusive encounters, she gets embroiled in an occasional subplot that turns into a red herring.

Of course, Sam’s initial work to track down the drug dealer and his snitch messes up the official investigation, bringing down even more suspicion onto her as well as making her hopes of rehabilitation fade. After what seems like an awful lot of Sam’s emotional agonising over police colleagues and witnesses alike, the book picks up towards the end as she finally (after several backs and forths) realises who she trusts and who she doesn’t, and attempts to outwit everybody in order to get her beloved job back.

This novel has much going for it: the setting is very well realised and the author seems to know a great deal about the police and police work. Sam is a potentially interesting character from what we are told of her back story, but she is far too boring in that she is constantly upset about some man or other, and her impulsive, outspoken and aggressive behaviour is pretty hard to identify or sympathise with on several occasions. As the book pans out, she does find some fairly damning evidence in her favour, but chooses not to call it in. There are lots of incidents like this that draw out Sam’s exile before the various plot elements begin to come together, but I think many of them have the effect of slowing down the pace too much by their circular nature, rather than increasing the tension or providing more clues for the reader to work on.

I am not sure if I’ll read more in the series: it depends on whether Sam ups the quotient of investigations in future, and acquires more self-knowledge and maturity, hence lowering her amount of inner vacillation about her love life with a cast of identikit males which can only be of limited interest to anyone other than her, including the reader. The book has strong potential and could develop as a series into a police-perspective counterpart to Sara Paretsky‘s V. I. Warshawski novels: one could imagine Sam and V. I. meeting as they certainly share not only some character elements but also a particular perspective of their joint city. But on the evidence of this first novel, there is a little way to go.

Quite a lot of this book reminded me of one I read early last year, Blood Sunset by Jarad Henry.

I purchased my copy of this book, which won the Edgar award for best first novel in 2006.

About the book and the author at the US publisher‘s website. See Wikipedia for more about the author and her books (listed in series order). Author website.

Read other reviews of Officer Down at: The View from the Blue House; Mystery Ink ; and Reviewing the Evidence.