Author Keith R.A. DeCandido Talks Procedurals and Animal

Animal is a pulse-pounding thriller by renowned surgeon and humanitarian Dr. Munish K. Batra, in collaboration with international bestselling author Keith R.A. DeCandido. Keith stops by the site this week to share his love for the procedural genre and explain how he brings his favorite elements to Animal.

When I was a kid, two of my favorite TV shows were Barney Miller and Hill Street Blues. I was fascinated by them mainly because they were so much different from the other cop shows. On Barney Miller, they spent all their time in the squadroom dealing with ridiculously petty stuff for the most part, and most of their time was spent on the phone or doing paperwork. On Hill Street Blues, it seemed like politics and plea bargaining and compromise were the order of the day, which was contrary to the cleaner policework you saw on most cop shows.

The cast of “Barney Miller” in September 1976: Ron Glass, Max Gail, Hal Linden, Abe Vigoda, Jack Soo. Photo credit: ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images.

Also, both shows provided a broader view of humanity, by which I mean that they acknowledged that there were lower-class people in the world (I’m talking economically, not culturally). TV and movies rarely acknowledge that poor people even exist, but in these two shows, they were regulars.

My interest in this kind of police story was tickled by those shows, but it was a book and the two TV shows that spun off of it that really cemented my love for the ins and outs of police procedure. The book was Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon, in which Simon, a Baltimore Sun reporter, followed around the Baltimore City Police Homicide Unit for a year. That nonfiction book opened my (and a lot of people’s) eyes to the realities of police work, torpedoing so many of the clichés about detective work. It also was the basis of two of the best TV shows of the last thirty years, Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire.

One of the things I wanted to bring to Animal was a realistic procedural element. We have three detectives working the case, one an Interpol agent, An Chang, who has spent twenty years building a case against the serial killer—but whose identity he hasn’t been able to determine. This is not unusual for Interpol cases, as international law is so very complex that most Interpol agents spend years building their casework. And then we have Detective Michele Halls of the Monrovia Police Department. This is a suburban detective who is investigating a finger found inside some ground beef, and suddenly finds herself embroiled in a particularly grisly double murder. She’s way out of her depth, but she’s actually a good detective, and finds herself thriving in this case that is way beyond the pale of what one usually gets in the Los Angeles suburb. And then we have J.D. Skolnick of the San Diego Police Department’s Homicide squad, who has pretty much seen it all, and is a much more cynical and been-there-done-that cop.

So much of police procedure involves politics and budget and jurisdiction—the latter being a particularly important element, as our killer has struck all over the world. Chang’s job is to try to get both Halls and Skolnick to work with him to try to find the killer.

When the killer’s identity is revealed, we find out that he has a martial arts background, having trained in a retreat deep in the mountains of China. I’ve been training in the martial arts for more than fifteen years now, having achieved my third-degree black belt in karate in 2017. While studying karate has done all the physical things you’d expect—I’m physically stronger, have better stamina, and can generally do more physical activities than I could before I started training in 2004—what has proven the most valuable has been the self-awareness and self-discipline. I’m more comfortable in my own skin since I started training, and I also am more mentally settled.

Translating that to the mindset of a serial killer—especially this one, who is a principled serial killer—was an interesting exercise. But our killer was born of a nasty trauma. The much more brutal martial arts style he studied (which is one that I made up, a kitbash of several Asian traditions deliberately melded together by an unorthodox sifu) had the effect of calming him and improving his self-discipline. It unfortunately has the effect of making him a more organized killer, but still, that’s one of the best aspects of martial arts generally. It brings about a sereneness and sense of calm and stillness that can be very rewarding—and can also be turned to awful purposes, of course…

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