Black detective's tough tale of life, love and crime
Richard Carter | 10/12/2012, 4:17 p.m.
After all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor..."--Louis Calhern, "The Asphalt Jungle" (1950)
"It was an extremely hot, late July afternoon in the early '60s when Tony and Russ left headquarters in search of missing work-release prisoners convicted and sentenced with this privilege as a condition of probation on felony charges. Many, including those serving sentences on misdemeanors, did not return to jail as required. On this night, Tony and Russ were assigned to search for missing felony inmates."
Thus begins Joseph L. Butts' cautionary tale with the tingling title "And Then We Die" (AuthorHouse, 2011). Based on actual events in Milwaukee, it's a riveting look at the deputy sheriffs with whom Butts occasionally worked as they deal with life-altering stress on the job and at home.
I knew Butts as part of a small group of gutsy, determined Black officers of the law at a time when the city--and its power structure--was largely white. These days, despite a Black population of 222,000 among 600,000 inhabitants, race relations remain strained.
During my teenage years, several friends became police officers after high school--a few following their return from military service. Along with Butts, they were preceded by several hard-charging, respected Black cops renowned on the streets.
One was my uncle--the late Calvin C. Moody--the city's first Black detective. He and Felmers O. Chaney were inner-city police legends. Moody later became the first Black member of the County Board of Supervisors and Chaney headed the local NAACP.
Fast-forward to the present and Butts' paperback short story--a searing portrayal of jealousy, sexual indiscretion and marital infidelity leading to violence and, ultimately, the death of a young sheriff's deputy, despite the best efforts of his partner and his sister.
Butts clearly put his heart and soul into this, his second published work. His first--"Crime & Other Critical Social Ills...As Seen From Behind the Badge" (1995)--is a full-length paperback. It details his experiences with jail and court duty, motorcycle and squad patrol and as a detective investigating violent crimes.
Butts spent 30 years with the sheriff's department--20 of them in plain clothes and undercover. I was surprised to learn of his writing talent, demonstrated by the empathetic, compassionate and graphic prose that paints a disturbing picture of tragic events. Most impressive to me is how he captured the mood of street cops under pressure.
Butts relies on his experience controlling scenes and situations involving mental illness, homicide investigations and arrests, attempted homicides and armed robbery. As a result, his characters come alive in gritty detail: Tony and Russ, two young, white deputy sheriffs; Russ' unfaithful wife, Gina; and Russ' beautiful sister Alexis.
The story begins at a downtown restaurant as Tony and Russ rescue a white waitress being menaced by her "very muscular," 280-pound Black boyfriend, who is accusing her of going to bed with his best friend. Later, in search of a missing Black work release prisoner at an inner-city address, they encounter "an extremely obese Black female wearing a red bandana."