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Murder and Meditation From
San Francisco


November 1996

by Peter Handel,
San Francisco Chronicle, October 6, 1996

Former San Jose Police Chief Joseph McNamara uses a pulp fiction approach to portray a greedy, corrupt San Francisco Police Department -- and to register his disgust with the war on drugs.

CODE 211 BLUE (Fawcett; 409 pages; $5.99, paperback) is a fast-paced crime novel with a typical array of one-dimensional characters. The lead protagonist is San Francisco native Kevin McKay, a dedicated narcotics cop who plays basketball with disadvantaged youths at his former parish. Kevin loves the city, even as he and his unconventional partner, a marijuana-smoking undercover narc, work with "the human flotsam of a busy, indifferent world, spinning in a crescendo of failure that wouldn't be heard, even a block away.

But inside the SFPD's narcotics division, Lieutenant Glen Sherry is involved in his own racket -- shaking down small time dealers while protecting the big ones. When he tries to report Sherry, Kevin finds himself shunned by his colleagues, transferred to the sexual assault squad and seduced by the lover of a drug kingpin.

McNamara is at his best when imparting the flavor and nuance of life inside a large police department. We learn how the bureaucracy can stifle dissent or slow down investigations, and we get a sense of the still prevalent sexism and racism. McNamara does have trouble juggling his large cast of characters, and some of the plot twists are awkward and too convenient.

But it's his subtext that raises "Code 211 Blue" above the routine mire of shoot'em up crime fiction. The juxtaposition of the frustration of an understaffed rape investigation with the department's obsession with busting small time drug dealers -- and lack of interest in catching rapists -- hits hard and rings true. "Code 211 Blue" may not be great literature, but it's undeniably provocative and delivers both action and ideas, a rare combination in the genre.

[I read this book last month eagerly and this review is right on. At the end I was up until 5:30 a.m. to finish it. McNamara is on the board of the Drug Policy Foundation. He has a Ph.D. from Harvard and is working on a non-fiction book on police corruption from the drug trade. -- EES]