Bob Martin: Hoping Crime Will Pay

“Bronx Justice,” an N.Y.P.D. novel set in 1990s
Bob Martin, who was a Bronx detective during the high-crime years, has used his experiences as the basis for a novel. Durell Godfrey

A year-end headline in The New York Times last week read “Crime in New York City Plunges to a Level Not Seen Since the 1950s.” The number of killings in 2016 was 236, according to the report.

“That would have been a good month in the ’90s,” said Bob Martin, a member of the New York Police Department from 1968 to 2000, and now the author of “Bronx Justice,” an N.Y.P.D. novel set in 1990s, which was certainly not a decade for the dainty.

Riddled with crime, a crack cocaine epidemic, pimps and prostitutes, and an annual murder rate well over 2,500, the 1990s was the final point in time when the city could have been called edgy and gritty, before it segued into today’s cosmopolitan urban playground in thrall to gentrification.

“The phone would be ringing off the hook with homicides,” recalled Mr. Martin, who began his career in the legendary Tactical Patrol Force, an elite unit made up of big, tough cops — originally they had to be at least 6 feet tall — who climbed fire escapes, traversed rooftops, and busted down doors with virtual impunity. “We had to have a presence,” he said of the group, who would jump out of vans to deal with demonstrations and riots.

During his 32 years of serving and protecting he also worked on the street crimes unit, a plainclothes anticrime division whose motto was “We own the night.” He was assigned to several precincts around Brooklyn and Manhattan, and even helped out at the notorious 75th Precinct in East New York — the subject of a documentary called “The Seven Five” — where Mike Dowd, a dirty cop, was convicted in 1994 of running a drug racket. 

Mr. Martin discovered a love for writing while pursuing a college degree in criminal justice in 1989. He wrote a term paper about Dan Kelly, a legendary Queens homicide lieutenant, which appeared in The Badge, a magazine published by the Fraternal Order of Police. He went on to publish several stories about the police force, including one in New York Newsday called “A Team and a Family,” which chronicled the N.Y.P.D. football team he played on for about a dozen years. He founded the team’s alumni association.

After 15 years as a detective, he retired in 2000, moved to the East End, and decided to write “Bronx Justice,” which he self-published in 2016. 

Emblazoned across the cover is a much-coveted quote from Bill Bratton, the former N.Y.P.D. police commissioner, who Mr. Martin said had helped with his career. “There are no crime stories quite as good as a New York crime story. With ‘Bronx Justice,’ Bob Martin adds another good read to that list,” Mr. Bratton wrote.

It is, in fact, a very good read. The story follows John McGuire, a detective with the 42nd Precinct in the Bronx, and his crime-fighting partner, Joe (Go-Go) Gomez, who battle their own demons on the way to ensnaring a vicious sociopath who is cornering the crack cocaine market.

Detective novels, like any literary genre, reflect their times. And “Bronx Justice” is thoroughly emblematic of an era in that borough when, as the book jacket reads, “The gritty sidewalks, crumbling tenements, and trash-strewn alleyways of the Bronx have become dumping grounds for the bullet-riddled bodies of known drug dealers.”

The novel falls into the category of police procedurals, as characterized by television shows such as “Hill Street Blues” and, earlier, “Dragnet.” Essentially, it’s a genre in which the precinct and the daily routine of police work become the focus of the action, rather than that of a lone detective like Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple, or even an existential antihero like Sam Spade. 

Here, the story follows an ever-changing group of characters — police officers whose interactions with one another are as important as their dealings with killers and crooks. They see dreadful things day after day, but their outrage is the same as society’s outrage. They are cops but not outsiders.

And as such, the reader learns of McGuire’s and Gomez’s flaws, and it becomes impossible not to root for them:

“McGuire put the receiver down and headed to the bathroom. He almost tripped over something on the floor. He bent down and picked up a can of Guinness stout, unopened. He remembered sitting on the couch, his fingernail playing with the pop top. . . . He didn’t know why it remained unopened but was glad it had. One was too many, and a hundred wasn’t enough.”

As it was as a cop, a writing life required a support system. In 2006, Mr. Martin met Vincent Lardo, Amagansett’s six-time New York Times best-selling author, whom he called his mentor. Mr. Lardo introduced the ex-policeman to the storied Ashawagh Hall writers group, then run by Marijane Meaker, the prolific novelist and Springs resident, and it was there that he received critiques he said were invaluable.

Scroll though the five-star customer reviews on Amazon, where his book is sold, and it is clear that readers love the author’s realistic characters and spot-on, hard-boiled dialogue. Of the many ex-police reviewers who were impressed, one stands out: Michael O’Keefe, the author of “Shot to Pieces,” another crime-solving novel, who wrote, “If you remember the ’80s and ’90s in New York, then you will remember the horror of the crack epidemic. Bob Martin lovingly details the courageous work of the cops and detectives of that time. . . . I was particularly taken with the final page. Bob Martin has demonstrated in expert fashion that the hero’s journey need not end with a resolution. . . . It has me eagerly looking forward to the next book in the Detective John McGuire series. I expect there will be many.”

That’s unlikely, said Mr. Martin, who doesn’t think he has it in him to write, edit, publish, and publicize another book. “This one took me 17 years. I don’t think I have that much time for another,” he said, laughing.

And therein lies the epilogue to this cop’s tale. “Bronx Justice” is every bit deserving of the services of a professional editor and a publicist who come with a publishing deal. If not for an industry that continues to push novice genre authors toward the uneven terrain of self-publishing, “Bronx Justice” would have been the very book to pick up at the airport when your flight has been delayed and you’ve already had a drink. 

Relax, you would have said, Detective McGuire will be great company for the next three hours.