Capturing Corruption: 10 Crime Novels That Influenced True Crime Saga I Got A Monster
By Baynard Woods and Brandon SoderbergJuly 21, 2020
When journalists Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg began writing I Got A Monster, their true-crime account of systemic corruption in the Baltimore Police Department, they turned to crime novels for examples of how to tell a story in a way that makes sure people keep reading. These ten books made their list not just because of their lean, hard-hitting prose, but because they also looked at the law with a suspicious eye.
Our book, I Got A Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad, explores the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), a gun-seizing unit praised for getting guns off the streets and supposedly stopping crime while simultaneously creating crime and running what one cop later called a “criminal enterprise” within the department. These GTTF officers robbed people, stole and dealt drugs, lied about overtime, planted evidence, and routinely violated Baltimoreans’ constitutional rights. It’s an organized crime story where the gangsters are the police.
I Got a Monster is true-crime but because the criminals are cops, at the center of the story are serious social justice concerns about the role of policing in the United States. But too often, we both thought, the more important the issues are in a work of nonfiction, the more boring the prose and structure. We wanted to avoid that trap which investigative journalism sometimes falls into on its way to making its important points.
So we turned to crime novels for examples of how to tell a story in a way that makes sure people keep reading. There are plenty of instances where crime fiction glorifies policing and justifies brutality and we wanted to avoid that sort of “copaganda” as well. So we reached for crime fiction that looked at the law with the same suspicious eye we had. There were a few crime books whose style or attitude were touchstones for us both already—Richard Price’s drug cop/drug dealer tragedy Clockers and James Sallis’ fragmented low life noir Drive—but we both also went on our own explorations through crime fiction. Here are five books from each of us that influenced in some way or another, I Got a Monster—a true-crime tale with a social justice bent that speeds along like an engrossing piece of hardboiled fiction.
Brandon Soderberg’s List:
Chester Himes, The Real Cool Killers
One of the strongest—and least convoluted—novels from Chester Himes’ Grave Digger Jones & Coffin Ed Johnson series, The Real Cool Killers shows our protagonists (two dirty, brutal cops who at least have some genuine affection for the community they police) traversing a grim and almost surreal Harlem. Himes’ sense of the absurd was influential as was his ability to place shocking violence next to portraits of working people and the underworld and throw in some social commentary. “I’m just a cop,” Grave Digger tells someone at one point. “If you white people insist on coming up to Harlem where you force colored people to live in vice-and-crime-ridden slums, it’s my job to see that you are safe.”
Jean-Patrick Manchette, Three To Kill
I picked this up because of Manchette’s reputation as a “leftist” crime writer. And reading Three To Kill—about a man who goes after the men who try to kill him that takes the scenic route towards plot and characterization—the leftist thing is ostensibly true, though I think it says as much about how right-leaning crime fiction generally is as it does about Manchette. Mostly, Manchette actually knows about leftist politics so he can describe them accurately and he tends to take crooks and radicals as seriously as the cops. To me, that’s just being even-handed, but call it leftist noir if you like. Either way, it was precisely what we wanted to do with I Got A Monster.
Claude McKay, Home To Harlem
Harlem renaissance novelist and poet—and Communist and queer lit progenitor—Claude McKay is not writing about crime exactly, but he’s writing about people who are on the margins so crime is always around. In this gutbucket reimagining of Homer’s The Odyssey in which a Black soldier traverses Harlem trying to find a sex worker he met on his first night back in the states, McKay captures city life with a love of the down-and-out that never veers into sentimentality. Along with Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (another touchstone for us ), I turned to Home To Harlem when I struggled to describe the complexities and chaos of Baltimore.
Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen
We began writing I Got A Monster when Moshfegh’s My Year Of Rest and Relaxation came out and I inhaled that book and all of Moshfegh’s other work over the next month so there’s no way she didn’t influence me. I definitely stole some moves from her about deploying really dark humor (which I Got A Monster has a lot of) and writing about characters that are fundamentally “unlikeable,” which is to say they read like real people. Eileen is noir-ish but crime’s also a vehicle for characterization. Eileen is difficult and unpleasant but such an easy read. I wanted to write a book like that.
Richard Stark, The Outfit
When I was telling a good friend—podcaster Sean McTiernan—about some of the GTTF’s crimes, he referenced the middle section of this Parker novel, which is a lengthy, at times even numbing, series of ornate robberies. It’s a strange decision by Stark to get so discursive, but it adds an ethereal quality to the idea of The Outfit, this bigger-than-life crime syndicate. The chapters in I Got A Monster that detail these dirty cops’ summer crime spree needed to have that feeling—as if the cops themselves weren’t even quite sure of how they got here, sleepwalking through weeks of cruelty and depravity.
Baynard Woods’ List:
Hannelore Cayre, The Godmother
Cayre’s The Godmother is a masterpiece of crime fiction—and one that was useful to help me think through some of the problems in our book. Cayre is a lawyer—in France where the system is different, but still—and she shows in great detail how a low-level police employee, a translator for a drug squad, becomes a crime boss. But the portrait of her eccentric, criminal family, also really helped me think through some of the conflicting emotions that our criminal cops were dealing with. This is the rare book that shows the corruption of the powerful and sides with those struggling to get by, even if they do it by resorting to crime.
Kem Nunn, Tapping the Source
So much of true crime is structured as a cat and mouse game where some law enforcement officer is tracking the bad guys. We knew, since the cops were the bad guys in our book, that we’d have to turn that upside down. We realized that defense lawyers were the ones who played the investigative role in our story, but during that process, we thought a lot about all the other ways that role had been played in crime fiction. The private detective is the rote answer the genre provides to the question, but I especially loved the way that Nunn let the grief and the curiosity of a younger brother serve as the motivation for the investigation in Tapping the Source. Each of our characters was, in some form or another, looking for that sister.
Walter Mosley, Little Green
In our book, we wanted to capture the mood of Baltimore in the two years after the uprising following the death of Freddie Gray. We both felt that the best crime fiction is so good, in part, because of the way it can evoke a time and a place. For me, when it comes to that kind of atmosphere, Walter Mosley is unparalleled (he’s also the best part of ESPN’s OJ: Made in America documentary for the same reason). I thought a lot about the way Little Green captured the turmoil and upheaval of late-1960s California as we were writing because the period between April 2015, when Freddie Gray was killed by Baltimore Police, and June 2018, when the book ends, is equally tumultuous and significant.
Laura Lippman, After I’m Gone
Laura Lippman’s After I’m Gone is based on the real-life disappearance of a famous Baltimore crime figure Julius “The Lord” Salsbury. But rather than focusing on the disappearance or the criminal underworld Salsbury ran, Lippman looked at the places where that underworld intersected with the “normal” world of domestic life. By looking at the impact of his disappearance, this book influenced me almost as a haunting absence. We knew that ours was a book about the workplace: the cop cars and the streets. But I knew that in focusing on the hypermasculine world of the crooked cops and the drug dealers they targeted, we were leaving whole rich worlds unexplored.
Martin Solares, The Black Minutes
It was hard to find a crime novel that had as dark a view of policing as the facts we were writing about demanded—although, as Brandon writes about here, Chester Himes definitely did. We were also both slightly concerned that our subtitle was “the rise and fall of America’s most corrupt police squad” because in the larger view of the Americas, we were sure that there were more corrupt squads in Mexico. Talking to Ioann Grillo, who covers crime in Mexico, confirmed that. So I started looking around for Mexican crime novels, looking for a deep understanding of the ordinary quality of corruption missing in much American crime fiction. The Black Minutes did not disappoint in that regard. Paracuán, Solares’ fictional harbor city in Mexico, was like a phantasmagorical version of the Baltimore the story of the GTTF was revealing to us.
About I Got A Monster:
The explosive true story of America’s most corrupt police unit, the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), which terrorized the city of Baltimore for half a decade.
When Baltimore police sergeant Wayne Jenkins said he had a monster, he meant he had found a big-time drug dealer—one that he wanted to rob. This is the story of Jenkins and the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), a super group of dirty detectives who exploited some of America’s greatest problems: guns, drugs, toxic masculinity, and hypersegregation.
In the upside-down world of the GTTF, cops were robbers and drug dealers were the perfect victims, because no one believed them. When the federal government finally arrested the GTTF for robbery and racketeering in 2017, the stories of victims began to come out, revealing a vast criminal enterprise operating within the Baltimore Police Department.
Cops planted heroin to cover up a fatal crash that resulted from a botched robbery. They stole hundreds of thousands of dollars, faked video evidence, and forged a letter trying to break up the marriage of one of their victims to keep his wife from paying a lawyer. And a homicide detective was killed the day before he was scheduled to testify against the crooked cops.
I Got a Monster is the shocking history of the rise and fall of the most corrupt cops in America from Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg.
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