American Detective: Behind the Scenes of Famous Criminal Investigations
© 2018 Thomas Reppetto
I’ve been playing through L.A. Noire lately, and its use of real-life crime (the Black Dahlia case) prompted me to look for anything written about it. American Detective only mentions the Dahlia case, using it in Reppetto’s history of American detective units, their decline in the late 20th century, and the need for them to make a comeback. Reppetto writes from both research and experience, having previous been a commander of detectives in Chicago. American Detective is a mix of straightforward histories of various crimes and enterprises across the United States (mostly in larger cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Cleveland), and including serial killers, bank robbers, and organized crime. The writing can be dry, especially when it’s just one case after another, but Reppetto does warm up, especially when he shifts from fact-delivery to reflection.
In covering the rise of municipal detective bureaus, Reppetto attributes their takeover of American policing to the complications of mobility and immigration, both of which required more focused, deliberate, and sustained investigations than ordinary patrolmen could offer. At their prime, American detectives were an elite force — patrolling their city, constantly gathering information and building a network of informants who would come in handy in the event of an investigation. Corruption, political and otherwise, coupled with increasing bureaucratization which forced detectives to become specialists who worked cases instead of generalists who worked the city, diminished their performance , while at the same time politicians began touting approaches to law enforcement that emphasized the role of the ordinary patrol officers. Reppetto believes that “community policing” was never clearly defined, and argues that detective bureaus should reclaim their midcentury prominence.
As a book, American Detective delivers a lot of interesting back stories behind famous personalities and crimes, along with less interesting ones. That may be a matter of taste, or delivery; I’d liken the book to sitting at a railway intersection and watching a train go by. There’s much of interest, but there are also long stretches of literary boxcars, fairly featureless. There’s a lot of little tidbits in here, though, so if you’re an avid reader of true crime, it’s probably worth checking into. Personally, having spotted that Reppetto has also done some works on the Sicilian Mafia, I may read a little more of him.