(Editor’s note: In this 25th installment of our “Story Behind the Story” series, Steven Hart illuminates the background of his new novel, We All Fall Down [Black Angel Press]. Hart, a lifelong New Jersey resident, allowed his early fondness for H.L. Mencken, Studs Terkel, and Ambrose Bierce to steer him into the newspaper business, where he worked for many years as a reporter and editor. He also did a stretch with a business newsletter, covering the arcana of commercial real-estate finance, and has placed freelance articles with The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Salon. His first book, a non-fiction study titled The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway, was published in 2007, and he is under contract to Rutgers University Press to write a dual biography of political bosses Frank Hague and Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, to be published next year. Since last year, Hart has operated a used bookstore, Nighthawk Books, in downtown Highland Park, N.J. Having made the jump from newspapers to bookstores, Hart is now casting about for another dying industry to join, and may open a one-hour photo developing studio to complement Nighthawk Books.)
Newspaper reporting used to be the most fun you could have without getting arrested, and reporting on crime and court cases--dealing with cops, lawyers, prisoners, and judges--was the most fun I had as a newspaperman. I use the word “fun” advisedly: the crime beat exposed me to some of the menacing back alleys of human behavior, and gave a dark tint to my view of life. One lengthy murder trial was so upsetting to cover, that several reporters had to go on sick leave for a few days, simply to decompress. But I learned a lot from watching cops, and some of what I learned braided itself into the DNA of Karen McCarthy, the heroine of my new crime novel, We All Fall Down.
During my days as a beat reporter, I had plenty of contact with cops and cop shops, and the few women officers I met were nothing like the ones I saw in movies or on television, or even read about. They were extremely tough and capable, often underutilized by their departments, and were frequently viewed as misfits in the hyper-macho world of police work. Some of them were misfits, or had internalized that stereotype to a certain extent. Police humor is often unbelievably crude, and they were frequently the target of jokes that, if used on the street, would instantly cause a fistfight.
The more forward-thinking police departments, especially urban cop shops, have come to appreciate the qualities that women officers bring to the job and seek them for that reason. But many suburban departments have yet to see their first women recruits, or retain the ones that apply.
Since cops are averse to exposing too much of themselves, particularly to civilians and reporters, I often found myself wondering what sort of woman would want to enter such a workplace. The changes that this sort of job would impose on a woman recruit, both good and bad, seemed like a fertile ground to explore in fiction. Throughout We All Fall Down, Karen is presented with the question of how far she wants to go--at what point would she be justified in thinking “Enough is enough,” and walking away.
(Right) Author Steven Hart
On the one hand, she has had an extremely troubled past, including a brush with alcoholism, and the discipline of police work is toughening her up in ways she can appreciate.
On the other hand, the work is pushing her away from her civilian friends and forcing her to make queasy moral choices. In one scene, after she has bungled the capture of a man who is the lead suspect in a cop murder, Karen knows she has to do something to buy herself time to recover her credibility with the other officers. When a drunken creep in a bar spits at her and insults her during a lineup, she accepts his challenge of a fight and defeats him with far more force than necessary. Partly this is because the cop code demands that anyone who attacks a police officer will be met with crushing force, but she also knows that she has to show the other officers that she has the guts to do the job, and she coldly decides to make this jerk into an object lesson.
Most of all, I wanted to write a novel in which the heroine is neither an adorable ditz nor a hot babe with a pistol strapped to her thigh. I wanted a heroine who, to take a phrase from the novel, “had grown up in the gray, half-seen zone men created for unattractive women.” The core of my conception of Karen McCarthy is that she is the kind of woman men tend to ignore, working in a job that makes her impossible to ignore. Her blighted childhood and adolescence have filled her with rage that she is only partly aware of, and which might bring her to grief. But she is also smart and funny, unwilling to accept the idea that she is not entitled to the same happiness others enjoy.
I wouldn’t mind knowing a woman like Karen McCarthy, but since I don’t, there was nothing left to do but write her into existence.