Tuesday, December 6, 2011

CR3 #90: The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad by Stacy Horn

I was always a big fan of 'Cold Case Files' on Discovery (back when the Discovery channel wasn't entirely populated by strange reality shows about creepy diseases and truck drivers). It was fascinating to see what a determined detective could do with scientific advancement and sheer perseverance. Cases that seemed unsolvable were closed, and people who had spent years thinking they'd gotten away with murder found themselves behind bars.

This book by Stacy Horn illustrates that these cases can take years to solve, if they are ever solved at all. And all the while, the detectives have to fight both the public and their own administration, pinching every penny and defending their unit's existence to all-comers.

The author spent a few years checking in on several detectives in New York City's cold case squad. She follows the progress of four cold cases, the earliest committed in 1951, the most recent in 1996. As the detectives backtrack, retest, and rethink their cases, Horn squeezes in a lot of information about how the cold case squad was formed, how it has continued to function, and the daily stumbling blocks that the detectives face in trying to accomplish their goals.

The dominant emotion to permeate this book is frustration. The detectives are frustrated by a multitude of different things: poor police work in the original investigations, reticent witnesses, the loss (or destruction or non-collection or mishandling) of vital evidence. Bureaucracy, red tape, and the usual petty office politics that plague any multi-tiered workplace. Knowing that a suspect is guilty, but being unable to come up with enough tangible evidence to satisfy a DA concerned with his win rate. It's a never-ending cycle of beating one's head up against a brick wall. Yet these men (at the time, there were no women on the squad, though that has probably changed by now) continue to try and find justice for the victims, be they an innocent child, a "fallen woman", a police officer, or a drug dealer. Some of the crimes detailed in the book get solved and the perpetrators go to prison. Others are deemed too old or too difficult. One gets passed along to another unit because it turns out to be mafia-related. This book has very few tidy endings.

This book is a great work of non-fiction, and the author does a great job of making each detective distinct. There is some issue with the organization -- the information related to each case is scattered through the book, which can be confusing until you realize that it's organized more or less chronologically, chronicling the detectives' progress as years pass. I think I might have preferred a different structure, but at the same time it does illustrate the way that these cases don't get solved all at once, but instead take years (and sometimes several detectives) before they can find any resolution.

I'd recommend this to anyone who is interested in true crime and/or police procedure, but it's a bit dry for entertainment reading.

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