Police killings and Black Lives Matter had begun to dominate the news in 2013 when I walked into an independent bookstore and found a paperback mystery called Burying Ben.
Ordinarily I wouldn’t make a big deal of this because Burying Ben is “only” a generic mystery — nothing literary or momentous about it. But looking back on the enormous pressures this first novel stood up against — as have the second and third in the series — I’m astonished at what the author continues to teach us.
Though unknown as a mystery writer at the time, Ellen Kirschman was famous in her field as a retired police psychologist who worked with the Palo Alto CA Police Department for 25 years.
Her nonfiction books (I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know; I Love a Fire Fighter, etc.) keep selling in the hundreds of thousands, and she’s much in demand as keynote speaker at police and family conferences from Singapore and Hong Kong to Toronto. First responders suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and other injuries swear by her workshops and retreats.
Kirschman has joked that mystery fiction is a way for her to “get back” at various foes and blowhards she’s run into in police work, and we do see stereotypes skewered here. At the same time it doesn’t appear that Kirschman exaggerates what one of her characters calls the “cowboy culture” of cop life.
When, for example, the new “little lady” psychologist is introduced to a roomful of FTOs (field training officers), someone asks, “Is that why she’s so short, because she’s a shrink?”
“It’s an old joke,” the psychologist knows. “I laugh to be polite.” But things are going to escalate. When it’s announced that she’s written a book about police officers and family life, another cop yells, “Can I get two copies, one for my wife and one for my girlfriend?” This kind of humor appears to be expected.
Burying Ben came out years before the Harvey Weinstein scandal and its aftermath, so reading such an exchange rings a familiar bell. Making a brief appearance is the police chief, who’s been standing behind psychologist’s chair. He “bends to my ear with a mock whisper. ‘The more they rag on you, the more they love you. When they stop teasing, that’s when you should be worried.’ ”
Well, it’s not teasing, we know, and it’s hardly love — perhaps the word “humiliation” would be closer. While the psychologist understands that “trust doesn’t come easily to cops, especially when it comes to mental health professionals,” the chief’s uncomfortable nearness feels calculated, his patronizing remarks intended to keep the new lady shrink in her place.
Just as Black Lives Matter launch protests against police behavior from the outside, Kirschman’s fiction explores the roots of it all from the inside. She may be writing a light mystery, but on the way we get an expert’s view of the dark side of police station life — its competitive atmosphere, deep strains of misogyny and racism, cruel hazing of new recruits and overall resistance to change.
Still, it wasn’t Kirschman but the jacket illustration of Burying Ben that called to me that day in 2013. There on the cover was something unthinkable in the mystery genre — the chalk outline of a victim who appeared to be male.
Whoa: No voluptuous babe sliced to pieces in some ghastly James Patterson bunker. No kidnapped women chained to radiators eating dog food off the floor. It was so refreshing.
The subtitle leaped into view: A Dot Meyerhoff Mystery. The name of the sleuth sounded so hokey and yet so genuine that I thought she must be adorable, and decided to investigate further.
Sure enough, the fictional Dot is very much like the author, a trusted police psychologist with decades of real-life experience and a peppery sense of humor. The difference between the two is that Kirschman, now in her 70s, keeps Dot — newly hired at the Kenilworth (Bay Area) Police Department — in her robust 50s.
If you’ve wondered what it’s like for cops — mostly male cops — to work with a female psychologist, Dot’s observations are worth the price of admission. As she notes in the third book in the series:
“Police officers are not eager consumers of therapy. They think it makes them weak to have problems. I think it makes them human. Almost every cop at Kenilworth PD regards me with skepticism, worried that I’m reading their minds and getting ready to report them to the chief as unfit for duty. They are not as standoffish as they were when I started three years ago, but it’s still an uphill battle to win their trust, let alone put a dent in the male-dominated culture of rugged individualism.”
We’ve seen that “male-dominated culture” in countless detective novels and police procedurals — and by the way, aren’t we all tired of every movie and TV show sticking a lady shrink in front of every star? Even Tony Soprano kept his sessions with Dr. Melfi secret because he didn’t want to seem emotional or weak.
In Burying Ben, what makes an embittered cop named Eddie so intriguing is the profane, unfiltered hostility he levels at the new female therapist.
“I don’t need you or anyone else picking through the turds in my head. I got my own doctor, Doctor Jack Daniels … As far as I’m concerned that [mental health] debriefing crap is just a big circle jerk where everybody cries, says their feelings and leaves feeling worse than when they started. … Listen to me, Florence Nightingale. You can shove your mail order Ph.D. right up your ass … Hasta lumbago, Doc. Have a nice day.”
Goodness. Do cops really talk that way? Well, when backed into a corner, they do, Kirschman reveals. Although readers may dismiss Eddie — alcoholic, racist, sexist, near retirement — as a lost cause, the joy of this series is that Dot doesn’t give up on anybody.
Not a “Fun” Murder
Burying Ben is a doozy of a story, though painful: A rookie named Ben not only takes his own life, he leaves a suicide note blaming Dot Meyerhoff, the new female psychotherapist at Kenilworth (read Palo Alto) Police Department.
Dot realizes she has to find out why Ben killed himself before she herself is fired.
To do this, she must 1) gain the trust of cops who aren’t speaking to her (they blame Dot, too), 2)survive a painful divorce while enduring one unexpected (of course) hot flash after another, and 3) prove her worth to the chief, who’s suspicious of lady shrinks to begin with.
And mystery author Kirschman has to prove her mettle, too. Statistics show that suicide is the number-one killer of police officers — in fact, cops are three times more likely to kill themselves as to be killed by criminals. Police don’t like to talk about it; mystery novelists don’t like to write about it, and it’s certainly not the kind of “fun” murder we mystery fans usually go for.
But Dot’s narration offers a different perspective. For one thing it’s a relief that she’s not the gorgeous hotshot female narrator so often seen rising up the murder-mystery ranks with fists and hormones a’flyin’.
Dot is rather a middle-aged hotshot female whose practice of patience and empathy allows her to slow down, observe and listen. We see how she notices things in a flashback, when Dot first meets Ben at a grisly suicide scene, where the gentle rookie is trying not to faint:
“Ben’s eyes are fixed on the body that lays like a discarded cornhusk doll. His lips are clamped together. He looks as though he might cry. Crying on scene is forbidden. One tear would be enough to earn him a jacket as weak, sentimental and undependable in an emergency.”
One Tear Could Ruin a Career
Dot knows that cops depend on each other not to fall apart under pressure: Their very lives can hang in the balance. But does this mean they must constantly prove how tough and unfeeling they can be?
Apparently the sergeant in charge thinks so when he orders Ben to return to the corpse and “put in your report whether this guy was a Q or an A,” meaning whether the dead man’s tongue sticks out of his mouth in a straight or circular direction.
Dot happens to see the other cops stifle their laughter as Ben earnestly goes off to measure, so she realizes some kind of initiation rite is taking place. Soon her talk with Ben — compassionate and instructive at once — takes us a past the locker-room atmosphere to unveil the real mystery addressed by this novel.
This is: Do macho white guys like the sergeant start out mean-spirited, or do they learn the small cruelties via peer pressure along the way? Can’t the police department’s hiring process cull out candidates who suppress their feelings, like hatred for women and people of color? Or do most rookies begin innocently like Ben and “turn bad” as they move up the ladder?
We get some answers from Dot, who shows us how elaborate the application process has generally come to be, and how the instincts of a police psychologist can make a difference. But she also suggests it’s an imperfect system that requires fine-tuning long after cops have earned their badges.
I have to warn my mystery-reading colleagues that Burying Ben has a number of first-novel problems: It’s too busy, the pace bogs down, there’s a sameness to the dialog, odd redundancies occur and Dot’s unorthodox methods strain credulity.
And yet these days when police behavior has come under such intense scrutiny, I’m less interested in the success of the story than fascinated by its revelations. And I was really anxious to see how Kirschman had grown in her second (2015) and third (2017) Dot Meyerhoff mystery.
Next: Part II, The Right Wrong Thing