Ask The Expert — Retired Detective Sergeant Bruce Coffin

Today we welcome back Bruce Coffin who is celebrating the release of his second novel in his Detective Byron Mystery series, Beneath The Depths. I really enjoyed the first book in the series Among the Shadows.

Bruce recent helped me get my police procedure details right as I was writing my sixth book. He is here today to answer more questions. Thanks so much, Bruce!

Did you always want to be a police officer? 

Not initially. I had actually planned to become a writer and attended college with that goal in mind. It wasn’t until I had a less than positive experience with a creative writing professor that I changed career direction.

What was the process for you to become a police officer?

I took the test for several of the local police departments before being offered a job with the Portland PD. Candidates are required to pass a number of things before they are sent to the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. Two written tests, polygraph test, psychological test, background check, credit check, criminal check, driver’s license check, several interviews (including the captain’s boards), a physical exam performed by a doctor, and a physical assessment. I’m still wondering how I ever passed the psychological (twice). Maybe they graded on a curve.

Has the process for becoming an officer changed since you joined the force?

Not all that much. The process itself has remained the same. The biggest difference today is the number of people turning out to take the exams. When I tested to become an officer literally hundreds of people would take the test. Many local departments have trouble getting even thirty people to show up. This shortage of candidates has resulted in many officers transferring laterally from other agencies.

What are three things we should know about being a police officer?

It can be the toughest of jobs when things go wrong. It can be the most rewarding of careers when everything is going well. And policing is a front row seat to the greatest show on earth, the human condition. I don’t regret a single day of my twenty-eight years on the job.

What was your favorite part of the job? Any interesting experiences you can share? 

Ha! There are too many to list. As for interesting experiences, you’ll have to read my novels.

If I get pulled over what should I do? 

Do what I do when I’m pulled over. Shut the car off. Keep your hands where the officer can see them. Stay in the car. Be polite. Traffic stops are one of the most dangerous things an officer can do, especially at night when visibility is bad. Don’t add to the officer’s stress level by acting out or arguing. Court is the place to make your case, not on the side of the road. Treat the officer like you would want to be treated. Remember they have no idea who you are or what else you may have recently been doing when they approach you. I know an officer who pulled over a driver for failing to dim their vehicle’s high beams. That particular driver was returning home immediately after raping a murdering a woman.

What do people get wrong when they are writing a character who is a police officer?

I get asked this question a lot. If I had to sum it up quickly I’d tell you to write a real character first. After you’ve created a believable character turn his or her world upside down by making them a cop. All writers are readers first, just as all cops are people.

How do you use your expertise in your books? 

The plots for my novels are fictional but I use as much of my own experiences as I can to make the stories as realistic as I can for the reader. Obviously I have to take a few liberties for the benefit the reader. In real life murder investigations sometimes go unsolved, but if I were to write my novels that way no one would want to read them. I make it a point to delve into the human and ethical struggles that police officers must confront every day. My novels are a way for those with no police experience to jump into the car with John Byron and Diane Joyner and race toward trouble from the safety of your couch.

How are you alike and different from your protagonist John Byron? 

I constructed John Byron by throwing myself into a blender along with some of the officers who trained me when I was starting out and a few of the officers I worked with over the years. The traits John and I share are that we tend to look at things the way many veteran detectives do and we both have an irreverent streak especially when it comes to interference in our investigations. As for our differences, John is struggling with alcohol addiction and his failed marriage. I am blessed with a supportive and understanding wife. And the fact that she has put up with me and my craziness for more than thirty-five years makes me one lucky guy.

What are you working on now? 

At the moment I’m hard at work on the manuscript for the third Detective Byron mystery, tentatively titled Beyond the Truth. I am almost three quarters of the way through first draft. Oh, and for those of you wondering, I have already begun plotting Byron number four…

Readers: Do you have a question you’d like to ask about being on the police force or about Bruce’s great series?

Bruce Robert Coffin is a former detective sergeant with more than twenty-seven years in law enforcement. At the time of his retirement, from the Portland, Maine police department, he supervised all homicide and violent crime investigations for Maine’s largest city. Following the terror attacks of September 11th, Bruce spent four years working counter-terrorism with the FBI, earning the Director’s Award, the highest honor a non-agent can receive.
Bruce is the bestselling author of the Detective Byron Mysteries from HarperCollins. The debut novel in the series, Among the Shadows, was released to rave reviews, appearing in several Amazon bestseller lists and topping the paperback fiction list in the Maine Sunday Telegram. His short stories have been featured in several anthologies including the 2016 Best American Mystery Stories.

 

Wicked Wednesday: Reading Goals for 2017

(Julie here) Personally, I’ve decided that I need to read more for pleasure in 2017. I’m working on a reading list now. Any suggestions Wickeds? Any specific goals for the year?

Edith: Since I’m heading into knee-replacement recuperation at the start of February, I’mshorttime
looking forward to doing some series binge reading in between PT and naps. I want to read the Cara Black mysteries set in Paris. Alyssa Maxwell’s new historicals. All of Kathy Lynn Emerson’s (and her alter ego Caitlin Dunnett) that I’ve missed. Plus new books by friends like Susan Bickford, Bruce Coffin, Deb Crombie, and Brenda Buchanan,and the new Jungle Red blogger Ingrid Thoft. So many books, so little time!

Liz: I’ve got so many books on my TBR list I don’t even know where to start. And I’ve been remiss in my reading over the past few months, so I feel really behind! I’m looking forward to reading William Kent Krueger’s Cork O’Connor series, and catching up on my Lee Child and Longmire books. Also want to read Wally Lamb’s new one, I’ll Take You There. And, as many of you know, I’m a self-help junkie – so in that vein, I’m reading all of Gabrielle Bernstein‘s books to try and sharpen my meditation skills. That should keep me busy for a bit!

gardenoflamentationsBarb: Like Julie, I have a goal this year to do a lot more pleasure reading. That means less time allowing myself to be distracted by the various screens in my life. I’ll keep up with my favorite series: Deb Crombie, Louise Penny, Paul Doiron, Craig Johnson and William Kent Krueger. I also want to finally get to read some of the non-mysteries everyone is talking about. The Light Between the Oceans and The Nightingale are two. (I know, I know.)

Jessie: I have quite a bit of non-fiction reading planned. My Beryl and Edwina series is set in England in the 1920s and there are so many interesting resources written about that time! I am currently reading The Long Week-End: A Social History of Great Britain 1918-1939 by Robert R. Graves and Alan Hodge. Next up are Borrowed Time: The Story of Britain Between the Wars by Roy Hattersley and Independent Women: Work and Community for SOngle Women i1850-1920  by Martha Vicinus. For some fiction I am looking forward to The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths and Thrice the Binded Cat Hath Mewed by Alan Bradley.

huntersSherry: I just started reading Ingrid Thoft’s book first book Loyalty. Her protagonist, Fina Ludlow, is a private investigator for her dysfunctional family’s law firm in Boston. Like Edith, she hit my radar when she joined Jungle Red Writers. I’m only a few chapters in, but it’s hard to put down. For Christmas my mom gave me a copy of my favorite Phyllis A. Whitney book from when I was young. I’m really looking forward to reading it and wonder if I will still love it. I should branch out more from mysteries and thrillers but I love them.

Julie: Hamilton by Ron Chernow has been put on the bedside table along side Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye. I also got some non-fiction books at Bouchercon that I am looking forward . Thinking a lot about the Golden Age of mysteries, wondering if we’re in another one.

Readers: What’s on your reading list this year?

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A Wicked Welcome to Bruce Coffin

image2Bruce Coffin doesn’t write cozy novels, but is a FOTW (Friend of the Wickeds) whose first book, Among the Shadows, debuted this fall. He is also a wonderful short story writer, and is sharing one with us today. It is a lovely story–a perfect balm for this time of year. Thank you Bruce for visiting the Wicked Cozy Authors today!

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Several years ago, I penned a holiday tale titled Saint Nicholas. I know that many, many folks find the holidays a bit overwhelming. My goal in writing this short seasonal story was to remind all of us what is truly important and to provide an emotional lift to those in need. If I’ve done my job well, this story will put a smile on your face and some warmth in your hearts. Feel free to share if you think it might mean something to others. Here’s wishing you and yours a safe and happy holiday season.

–Bruce

 

Saint Nicholas

I’ve always believed that it’s part of the human condition to focus on the negative. Maybe it has something to do with our upbringing, although upon reflection we are all raised very differently so perhaps not. Whatever it is, it definitely exists in each of us. How else can we explain the age old news reporting axiom “if it bleeds it leads?” Police officers are even more inclined to focus on the negative. Being exposed to it day in and day out tends to make one jaded. But, I’m getting way ahead of myself. I should probably begin by telling you a little bit about me before I tell you my story.

My name is Crispin Mallory and, in case you haven’t already guessed, I am a police officer. I’ve been with the same department for thirty years, pushing a cruiser around,  investigating motor vehicle accidents, breaking up domestics, chasing down criminals, and writing the occasional traffic citation.

One day, several years back, I was working a double shift. Cops aren’t paid all that well and when an overtime opportunity presents itself most of us on the job are quick to say yes. It was December twenty-fourth and I just finished my first tour. I’d returned to the station to attend roll call before heading back out for another eight hours. I was tired and not in a particularly festive mood, mostly due to the fact that I had to work on Christmas, which meant my wife and two children would be celebrating without me. Another holiday missed. Such is the life of a cop. Anyway, the sergeant held me back after the briefing, said he had a task for me. I was instructed to return some valuables to a local home for the aged. Apparently one of the nursing staff had confessed to stealing jewelry from some of the residents at the home, to support her drug habit. See what I mean? All negative. The sergeant provided me with the name of the medical administrator and asked me to deliver the items to him.

After checking out a squad car and loading my gear, I got on the radio and requested that the dispatcher show me ten-six (busy) on assignment. I drove toward the nursing home grabbing a drive through coffee along the way.

I parked in the lot and made my way inside. The receptionist was talking to one of the orderlies and they both turned as I entered.

“Hello officer,” she said. “Merry Christmas.”

I returned the greeting.

“What can I do for you?”

“I’m looking for Mr. Ashby,” I said. “I’m supposed to deliver something to him.”

“I’ll try his extension.”

I wandered around the lobby as she tried to locate Ashby. Everything was brightly painted and decorated for the season. On the counter stood a small lit Christmas tree. I wondered if the employees were still allowed to call it a Christmas tree.

“Officer?”

“Yes.”

“He’ll be right out.”

I thanked her and continued to look around. Ashby walked up to me and introduced himself as the facility’s head administrator. I explained my purpose for being there and he led me back to his office so we could talk in private.

Once we were seated, I handed him the package and an evidence slip explaining that he needed to sign for the items.

“I am so pleased that your detectives were able to recover so many of the things that our former employee took. I’m sure you can imagine how much these items mean to the residents here. Some of these pieces of jewelry aren’t all that valuable, but they represent gifts from and memories of loved ones. Some things are worth far more than money.”

I agreed. After going through each of the items he signed for them and returned the evidence sheet to me. I stood, preparing to leave, when he stopped me.

“I don’t suppose you’d be willing to do me one small favor, would you officer?”

I wondered why I would need to do another favor for him. After all, I’d just returned a number of stolen items. Shouldn’t that have been sufficient? “I really need to get back on the road, Mr. Ashby.”

“You’re right. I shouldn’t impose. You’ve got places to go I imagine.”

Now verbally he was letting me off the hook but his tone and facial expression told another story. I knew he was attempting reverse psychology on me. Something my wife and I did to our kids everyday. “What do you need?” I asked.

“It will only take a second, I promise. But it will mean so much to her.”

Ashby proceeded to tell me about an eighty-year-old patient named Ruth Perkins. Mrs. Perkins was suffering from Alzheimer’s.

“She’s all alone now,” Ashby said. “Her husband passed last year. They had one son, Nicholas, and he was a police officer. Nicholas was killed in a shootout many years ago. Apparently he would visit her every Christmas, whether he was working or not and it meant the world to her. Her Alzheimer’s is advanced but she still manages to put several good days together each month. I have no idea how she does it but she does.”

I sat down again as he continued.

“Every month since the death of her husband, just prior to the twenty-fifth, she gets it into her head that Christmas is approaching. She gets so excited and makes a point to tell all of the staff that her son is coming to visit. She even has a ceramic tree that she makes us put up in her room. Of course when the twenty-fifth passes and Nicholas doesn’t show up her condition quickly worsens and she reverts back to her former state. It’s really quite sad.”

“What do you want me to do?,” I asked. “I’m not her son.”

“I know that, but I thought it might cheer her up just to get a visit from an officer in uniform. Just stop by and wish her a Merry Christmas.”

I only wanted to get back to my comfort zone. Back to my cruiser. I really wasn’t enjoying the idea of popping in on an already confused old woman, possibly making her situation worse. But Ashby’s reverse psychology must have worked because I found myself saying okay.

He said he’d introduce me, then he led me down the hall to her room. I followed, amid the stares and whispers of the other residents. Each of them probably wondering what the cop was doing there. At last he stopped and entered a room. The sign on the door said R. Perkins and a white ceramic tree stood on the table under the window. As I rounded the corner I saw her sitting up in bed, wearing a festive green robe over a red sweater. She was wearing makeup and it looked like she had just paid a visit to the hair dresser. She looked dignified and radiant, like someone waiting to be called upon, not at all what I had expected.

“Mrs. Perkins,” he said. “I’ve brought you a visitor.”

She turned towards us and her blue eyes lit up instantly. “Nicholas,” she cried out. “My Saint Nicholas, I knew you’d come. Didn’t I say he would come? Oh, this is the best Christmas ever.”

She held her arms out to me as I approached the bed. I bent down toward her and she hugged me tightly, even kissing me on the cheek. “Merry Christmas,” I said.

“I should leave the two of you alone now,” Ashby said, as he left.

I sat down in the chair beside the bed and she began asking me all sorts of questions. I was afraid that I might say the wrong thing, but as time passed it became obvious that nothing I said would lessen her faith that I was her son. We talked for close to an hour. I told her all about my family and about my work. She asked if I remembered this thing or that and of course I told her I did. The smile never left her face.

I stayed with her until she began to tire. All the excitement had worn her out. She hugged me again and made me promise to return the following day. Christmas Day. I promised that I would and kissed her on the cheek. I returned to my cruiser and radioed that I was back in service. My heart was full and I was happier than I’d been in a long while. It was clear that my visit to Ruth Perkins had done something positive to both of us. I no longer cared that I’d be missing this Christmas with my own family. Don’t get me wrong, I still wanted to be with them but after visiting a lonely old woman I realized I had no right to complain. There would be other Christmases to spend with my family. Mrs. Perkins’ family was gone leaving her only memories.

I returned to work the following day. Christmas Day turned out to be busier than any of us had imagined. A light snowfall had left the roads slick resulting in many accidents. The calls for service were already backing up by the time I hit the street.

It was nearly one in the afternoon before I was finally able to take a lunch break. I grabbed a sandwich and a couple of eggnogs at the local market before heading to see Mrs. Perkins. I was excited about being able to keep my promise to her and looking forward to seeing her face light up at the sight of me.

I parked in the nearly vacant lot and headed inside. The receptionist was a different girl than the one I’d spoken to the previous day. Holiday help I assumed. She asked if she could help me and I politely declined. “Thank you but I’m all set. Just visiting someone.”

I walked down the corridor to her room, stopping as I reached her door. The room was empty. Her belongings were gone and the nameplate was missing from the door. I felt like someone had knocked the wind out of me.

“Can I help you officer?” a soft female voice asked from behind me.

I turned and saw a young orderly. “I’m looking for Mrs. Perkins. Ruth Perkins. Has she been moved?”

“Are you a relative?”

I pondered her question before answering. “Sort of. I just visited her yesterday.”

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Mrs. Perkins passed away last night.”

 

Many years have passed since that Christmas. I’m still a police officer with the same department. Heck, I’ve been on so long now that I get every Christmas off. I’ve never forgotten Ruth Perkins or her gift to me. Oh, I know what you’re thinking. That it was I who gave her one last visit with her son. But I think of it differently. I believe she’s the one who gave a great gift to me. You see, Mrs. Perkins restored my faith in humanity, helped me appreciate what I have. Her belief that I was her son was so strong and so real that I couldn’t help but feel the same love for her in return. Her faith and her love changed me forever. And isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

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image1Bruce Robert Coffin is a former detective sergeant with more than twenty-seven years in law enforcement. At the time of his retirement, from the Portland, Maine police department, he supervised all homicide and violent crime investigations for Maine’s largest city. Following the terror attacks of September 11th, Bruce spent four years working counter-terrorism with the FBI, earning the Director’s Award, the highest honor a non-agent can receive.
Bruce is the author of the Detective Byron Mysteries from HarperCollins. The debut novel in the series, Among the Shadows, was recently released to rave reviews, appearing in several Amazon bestseller lists and topping the paperback fiction list in the Maine Sunday Telegram. His short stories have been featured in several anthologies including the 2016 Best American Mystery Stories.
He lives and writes in Maine.