Cover image for Say goodnight to the boys in blue
Say goodnight to the boys in blue
McEachin, James.
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Encino, CA : Rharl Pub. Group, [2000]

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282 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
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X Adult Fiction Central Library

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December, . A different kind of night for the boys in blue is slow-town New Jersey.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

In the shadow of New York City, the calm and placid setting of Elton Head, New Jersey, in the 1950s provides deceptive cover for the dark underside of human nature. On the surface, the night shift of the police department is preoccupied with the typical work of law enforcement in a small town, but below the surface personal demons eat at the local boys in blue. On a single December night, the darker elements, starting with the typical clout and corruption and advancing to a literal beast, will test the mettle and humanity of the night-shift personnel: Scandinavian-born Danny Carlsson, with more American pride and idealism than the locals; Dempsey O. McShayne, the widowed desk sergeant who provides the moral weight and support to the men; and a drunken outcast who is befriended by no one other than Danny. In fact, Danny proves the only source of hope for the tragic deception and ironic judgment to be rendered against the boys in blue. --Vernon Ford

Publisher's Weekly Review

McEachin's most original and strangest plot yet unfolds in his fourth novel (after The Heroin Factor), a bizarre tale of murder, mayhem, and poetic justice in a small New Jersey town in 1950. At once a dark satire and a black comedy, this clever thriller has the wacky police force of Elton Head beginning the midnight shift in a town where nothing ever happens. And it's a good thing the town is slow, because the cops are so inept they couldn't catch a cold. Danny Carlsson is a rookie on the force, a walking beat patrolman with conscience and heart who hates his job, stuck on the graveyard shift with the seven laziest, most corrupt colleagues. But on the night of December 19, 1950, everything changes. Danny befriends an old black wino named Soldier Boy, puzzled by the wino's prophecy that Danny will soon "be the last man standing." After Soldier Boy is brutally beaten to death by a racist tavern owner, Danny is outraged when his fellow cops let the killer (their pal) go free, citing self-defense as the whitewash for murder. As the winter night wears on, however, peculiar events occur that give Danny an indirect but effective chance to seek both justice and revenge. The other seven policemen reveal themselves to be drunks, liars, philanderers, thieves and criminally stupid, but it's plain bad luck that does them in. The oddball characters are drawn with verve and textured well beyond stereotype. Na‹ve Danny is also flawed enough that he's not simply Mr. Do-Nice. Then there's a gruff desk sergeant with a bad heart, an alcoholic officer who won't wear his dentures, a cop who sports a white tuxedo and dreams of being a tap dancer and another who wears pajamas and carries a pillow. In this delightfully loony and suspenseful story, everybody gets exactly what they deserve, and Elton Head will never be the same again. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One It was a good night to be nice and comfy. It was post-World War II, and the lights were on again all over the world. The boys were back home, Rosie the Riveter had returned to the kitchen, and a feel-good mentality swept through the nation's capital. It was the beginning of a new decade, broken threads had been mended, innocence renewed, baby-booming tots were teething, and apple pie and roses complimented the national menu. Bread could be purchased at 13 cents a loaf, eggs at 62 cents per dozen, and, for a country on the move, the price of gasoline was holding at a respectable 24 cents a gallon. The economic outlook was high; the entrepreneurial spirit was fresh and vibrant. It was the American dream come to life. In the suburbs, crime was down, misdeeds were few, and ill-will and incivility was laid to rest by images of chummy neighbors pruning flowers and hedges behind picket fences that fronted rows and rows of happy little prefabricated homes. And most sanguine had been the change of seasons. Abetted by a benevolent summer, fall had passed the baton on to an engaging winter, nursed it through to mid December, then released it so that the final month of the year could claim the glory of Christmas all its own.     All was right in an untroubled world. Or so it seemed.     That said, in a remote little slice of northern New Jersey a melodious clock sat atop a library that was strong on nostalgia and sent its Roman numerals spewing off in four different directions. It was performing its last chore of the night. Signaling midnight, it was bonging out 12 strokes. Nicely done, but the bold old clock with the weatherbeaten hands was wrong. There were still 29 minutes to go before the witching hour and, save for the boys in blue and a few up-all-nighters, the good citizenry of Elton Head had long since gone to sleep.     Weather-wise it was an utterly splendid night. Unlike the series of bad nights that had preceded it, nights that had been ushered in by a series of weird and seemingly satirical winds that had pranced into town, sucked up what little bit of atmospheric cheer there was, left an impolite deposit in the air and danced away like the clown prince of a black comedy, the night was sumptuous.     Like a greeting card promising something to the '50's that the '40's hadn't delivered, a light snow was brightened by a translucent, silvery-blue moon that looked as if it lit heaven's way and appeared so close to Earth that it seemed almost touchable. It hung there like it was God's pendant. It was magnificent. Even the Elton Head trees, normally flat, denuded, and zonked in winter, benefited from the setting. They stood with their limbs stretched and swooped as though in holy worship.     Not exactly fitting, yet not necessarily out of place, slowly, as if adding a gentle nudge to the card, cutting lazily through the light falling snow were a pair of headlights that belonged to a dated Chevy pickup truck. It was taking its time threading through lonely and silent streets.     Danny Carlsson was behind the wheel. He was on his way to work. Almost handsome, Danny was a pleasantly shy, sandy-haired, 22-year-old Scandinavian whose thin and undernourished look belied his occupation. Less than three months on the job, he was one of eight men on the midnight shift. Because he had been on the department for less than 90 days he was not yet a full-fledged policeman. He was a rookie, not yet, as the saying goes, a regular ; not yet embraced by Elton Head's boys in blue.     It was a status that didn't displease him.     The wheels of the pickup crunched around a few corners, hit Essex Street, and eased past a series of low-angled storefronts that, even if they didn't appreciate the splendor of the night, should have at least gained glory from the season. Since it was that time of year, they should have been bedecked with the merriment of twinkling lights and shiny Christmas ornaments. Except for a store or two, they did not. They should have had promise, cheerfulness--seasonal zip and zap. Except for a front or two, they had nothing.     But sleepy little Elton Head was like that. It had a look--nothing to write home about, but it had a certain something that said, sleepy or not, little or not, it was an independent sort and was not about to be pressured into change. Even during the war, when the rest of the world was tilted on its axis and had gone haywire with civic pride and nationalism, it hadn't changed much. It assumed somewhat of a warlike posture by having a few star-banners in the windows of the widely spaced few who had a relative in service, and it did suffer through a few blackouts and some rationing, and, to its credit, it had been responsible for selling a few war bonds and having an "A, B, or C" gas-tax stamp plastered on the windshields of the few cars that traversed the streets, but still Elton Head hadn't done much. It never raised the ol' patriotic hue and cry; didn't lift its head in righteous indignation over having the country's peace assaulted, and, as had been denoted by the scarcity of red, white and blue window banners, it hadn't sent many of its men off to fight the nation's battle. And so it was not surprising that, nine years later, the stores and storefronts merely stood there--indifferent; choosing to remain cold in the night, giving mute testament that they were nothing more than an uneven line of downers amid a host of failures in a sleeping city.     As if on tour, as though he had all night to get to where he was going, Carlsson nursed the vehicle to Main Street, Elton Head's central artery. The central artery was dead. Even at the height of summer the old yawner didn't bristle with activity, but it did have a little something on those hot, musty nights--nights that at least warranted the occasional, bug-dodging, mosquito-swatting stroll. But not so in winter. Particularly this winter.     The vehicle moved on. It slowly crossed Railroad Avenue, rounded a few more streets, then touched State and Mercer. Later it eased onto Balanta Place. It finally came to a stop in a yard where a post-high lamp vaguely illuminated the area that was adjacent to the town's only police station.     Small and weathered, the station stood alone.     Slanted a slot or two away from where the pickup had parked were the cars belonging to the men who would soon be getting off from the evening shift and to the men who had already reported in for the midnight watch.     Although the snow flurries had covered the cars that belonged to the 12 men on the evening shift, one could see that the cars were of similar vintage. It appeared that they all suffered from an assortment of dents, bangs, chipped paint, and overall neglect. On the opposite side of the yard, closest to the building, were six Hudson patrol cars. None was new.     Since the cars had been used on patrol only minutes before, they hadn't yet fully benefited from the purifying flakes, and it was easy to see that they were more banged-up than the civilian cars. White-topped with midnight-blue bodies and a single-beam, rounded red light on each top, they were in the yard because of the change of shifts. Being Hudsons, they were clunky and slowest of the slow, but because they were bullet-shaped, they found favor with the chief. He particularly liked car 107. It was the newest of the group, stolen, as the chief and the city fathers liked to say, in an " as in ," too-good-to-be-tree, post-WWII, once-in-a-lifetime deal. The city fathers couldn't resist making the purchase.     The post-WWII, too-good-to-be-true, once-in-a-lifetime " as in " deal was through the courtesy of the Paterson, N.J., P.D.--itself no monument to law enforcement.     On its third odometer, fifth transmission, and fourth clutch, and at four years old and with so many miles on its third odometer that the mileage count no longer registered, the car, again the best of the bunch, leaked oil, the shocks were bad, the radiator was in trouble, and the clutch needed work. According to records, recently started, it had been the victim of two almost-drownings, eight collisions, and any number of "fender-benders." But the chief was happy, Ernest Mulkey, the city manager, was happy, and two years later, the six-member city council were still congratulating themselves over the "steal."     Despite its troubles, and like the rest of the Hudsons, the "steal" never lost its original bullet shape, and no one wanted to jeopardize it by allowing it on patrol at night with the other five cars. According to Mulkey, the chief, and the city council, it was that streamline look that foretold the police department's straight-ahead future.     The Elton Head officials were not known for accuracy in prophecy.     Although he was not privileged to drive because he was a rookie, Danny Carlsson didn't like the Hudsons. Nothing new there--Danny Carlsson didn't like the Elton Head Police Department. Danny didn't like being apart of the Elton Head Police Department. As he had done every night for the almost 90 days he had been on the department--on time, creased and polished--he remained in the pickup, looking out at the pitiful surroundings, thinking about his job while idly listening to the car radio. It had been a Walter Winchell re-broadcast from New York. Winchell, a clattering, all-mouth, eyes-'n'-ears newscaster, had just mentioned something about an increase in troop activity in Korea's Port of Embarkation, in the city of Pusan. With the volume low and his mind drifting, Carlsson hadn't fully caught what had been said. It was an oversight. He chided himself for not paying more attention. Although the action over there had been termed a United Nations police action , lives had been lost and the United States was certain to upgrade its involvement since it involved fighting the dreaded Communists. Having replaced the newly defeated Germans and Japanese, and reportedly responsible for every ill from the bubonic plague to flying saucers--owned and operated by ray-gun toting, bug-eyed little green people with legs too short to reach the brakes--the Communists were the nation's newest enemy.     But as the recently discharged Navy veteran firmly believed, the whole Korean conflict would be considered a waste. It had never captured the public's concern; never did, never would; and, in the end, knowing the quick-to-forget Americans, the entire episode would be relegated to the back pages of history. And the nation's leader, President Harry S. Truman, all he would be remembered for was authorizing the dropping of atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan. Maybe even that would be forgotten.     And so Elton Head's incredibly gorgeous night appeared to be of no help to a young man of foreign extraction whose thoughts slowed his every move; no help to a quiet young man who was in the wrong place, had the wrong job, and was missing something in life.     In a way, though, Danny Carlsson had to consider himself lucky. After a four-year stint in the Navy that covered a number of European ports and one or two quick trips to Asia, he had been discharged at the end of June. One week later, because of the growing hostilities in Korea, the military froze all discharges, and he found himself back in his adopted country, back in his adopted state; and back in the city of Elton Head. But, considering what the young sandy-haired Dane had gotten himself into--becoming a policeman on the Elton Head P.D., maybe he hadn't been so lucky after all. And besides, there was nothing wrong in a young man having a war under his belt. In fact, if the country was in trouble a young man should have a war under his belt. It didn't have to be as big or as breast-beating as WWII. Any conflict would do.     The young man spent the remaining minutes in the pickup with growing thoughts about re-enlisting. He wouldn't "re-up" in the Navy, though. This time he would try the Air Force. And, as he had done while in the Navy, he wouldn't be too keen on talking about his home town.     In that regard, though, Carlsson was like a lot of others. In service, a lot of young men were somewhat reluctant to discuss their home towns when they were away. It was never fully understood why, but little towns were out; "bigness" seemed all-important. A favorite in the military was to look on a map, find the ol' home town, stick a pin in it, and brag about its greatness. With cities like Elton Head, it couldn't be done. It could hardly be done with the State of New Jersey, even on a big map. The best one could do in trying to find Elton Head and all such little northern New Jersey hum-drummers on a good-sized map, was to find "the city so nice they named it twice" and backtrack across the Hudson River. It was a bother. And it was not that anyone from Jersey wanted to renounce citizenship and move to, or even be a part of, the nation's largest city. Far from it. Despite being slighted by the map, New Jersey was the Garden State--pretty in a lot of aspects, and, except for a weed here and there--such as Elton Head sometimes appeared to be--it could hold its own against the best of them. New York, with its overabundance of traffic, hostile air, rude people and other things the city was noted for, left a lot to be desired, and most of the Jerseyites would have been quite content if they had neither seen nor heard of the place.     A scant 13 miles west of New York, and mistakenly named after a roguish, fast-talking Dutch explorer who literally lost his head to a tribe of Indians whom he had fleeced in a wampum/Bible/land exchange--a deal wherein the rogue got the land and the Indians got two water-stained Bibles and a handful of Jersey-made wampum--some said Elton Head suffered in the shadows of the big burg. It was a view that came mainly from the insecure city fathers. They didn't want the big-city woes, but they did feel that being so close to New York, it miniaturized them and left them without an identity, as if they were left to view the world from under a damp blanket. The cliché went that when New York sneezed, Elton Head caught the cold. It was sentiment that didn't seem to bother anyone but the city fathers, and it was sentiment that seemed to have plagued every administration. In fact, some of Elton Head's earlier city fathers, in an attempt at assertive affirmation, had been so influenced by the shadow of the big burg that, from inception, both the police and fire department uniforms had that same Gotham look.     But not so with the police department's building itself. The Elton Head city fathers wanted a different facade--i.e., a New York front--but the aged building couldn't stand it, and, even if it could, the budget couldn't cut the mustard. And so, through the years, the weary building had remained unchanged.     The Elton Head P.D. building had a look all its own. With a set of weedy railroad tracks cutting precariously close to its rear, it was an architecturally destitute small-timer, with its most prized feature being the Elton Head P.D. brass plaque in front. Highlighted by a lone blue-green bulb, and with Roman-style lettering patinated by age, the plaque was supposed to give the building at least the feel of a New York precinct. It didn't get the job done. What was interesting, though, and perhaps could have been used as a testament to the old-time city fathers' imagination, was that 35 years earlier the brownish brick building had been the site of horse auctions. Even though that had been a long 13 years before he was born--and a long way from where he had been born--Danny Carlsson felt sorry for the horses.     Whether it was the imagination, or whether tinged by the forces of the great unknown--influenced, perhaps, by the series of weird, frolicsome winds that had pranced into town several nights before, on this particular night the former home of horse auctions looked a tad different. It maintained its customary lethargy, but, as if queued by the retarded hands of the library clock, or, better still, aroused by the moon's low-hanging, silvery-blue luminescence, the building seemed to radiate an inkling that there would be a change taking place. It wasn't much, but there was a hint--a pinch--a smidge of something that said--and it said it ever so vaguely--that in the offering of another dull, plodding, nothing-ever-happens, slow-moving night, there would be change riding with the hours, and that by morning there would be room for a changing of the guard. A complete changing of the guard, it said. It was a change that was to be in Elton Head's favor.     It was like an omen.     The snow was receding. The minutes ticked away; the rookie had to go inside. He disconsolately withdrew further thoughts about Korea and reenlisting in the Navy, put his midnight-blue police cap on and slowly got out of the pickup. He adjusted his uniform, got his nightstick and walked slowly from the yard to the front of the station. He wouldn't allow his face to show it, but, as he had said to himself every night, excluding the desk sergeant, whom he didn't really have a handle on, and patrolman Tetrollini, whom he did, he was all set for another night with a bunch of bozoid cops whose collective IQ's couldn't reach room temperature in the dead of winter.     Carlsson didn't like it, either, that the men laid claim to the notion of being home town heroes, but none of them had been in the service.     Every man in the Elton Head Police Department had managed to avoid the draft.     When the rookie arrived in front of the building, he routinely stopped under the dim blue-green bulb for a last-minute check of his uniform. Before finishing, he sent an incidental eye out and caught an old, muffler-hanging Henry J that happened to be putt-putting by. It was abused by a hand-painted, powder-pink paint job. A dumpy, compact car, it looked as if it were still dripping with paint.     Carlsson started to go inside, but, thinking it odd to see the car, he hesitated for a minute and watched as it eased to a stop and backed up a bit. A blonde and wholesomely cute teen-age girl with baby-blue eyes was behind the wheel. Not particularly noticing the junior policeman, she flicked an eye out on the parking lot, scanned both the patrol and civilian cars, and drove on.     The girl's name was Carol. Carol was all-American. After having ditched school and taken in a movie, all-American Carol had spent the rest of the afternoon painting the car. She had not done a good job. With a touch of pink paint still on her cherubic cheeks, she was now on her way to the park. She would go there and wait. It was almost 20 minutes to midnight. Time, however, was not a factor. The all-American teenager in the hand-painted car with the hanging muffler had all night. * * *     The interior of the Elton Head station held the hope of a metropolitan police department but succeeded only in being tiny, dull and dreadfully unimaginative. It reeked of the gaslight era. Up front, stale, teal-green paint blistered the walls and clashed pitifully with a New Yorkishly high, brass-railed desk that sat forward of dated mug shots and a series of faded Wanted posters. They were carelessly tacked above an old, infrequently clattering teletype unit. Next to the unit were a series of alarms and tiny red lights, all miraculously wired to an aged radio system that accommodated more wires, jacks, and a rounded, chrome-plated RCA microphone. The mike was centered on the desk. Made in 1937, and the newest item in the station, it was the heart and soul of the Elton Head Police Department. Over the door, next to a big clock, hung the lone speaker. It was a big one, and both clock and speaker were hanging on by a thin wire and an even thinner prayer.     A built-in switchboard sat left-front on the solid oak desk, and sitting behind the desk and switchboard was Sergeant McShayne. A dispirited veteran, he was in charge of the midnight shift.     Dempsey O. McShayne was a puffy-faced, heavy-eyed Irishman with hair that was as white and refined as spun silk. If he had chanced dressing in a red suit and hadn't been so worn and dour-looking, even without a beard he could have passed for Santa Claus. He would have fit right in with the four-foot, light-less Christmas tree, that stood weakly in a bare corner just inside the door. It was underneath a sad, stationhouse picture of old-time cops.     The Elton Head P.D.'s Christmas tree was intentionally unadorned and sparse-looking. The placement had been designed for easy access. It was there for the merchants. By tradition and by strong and frequent hints from the uniformed men on patrol, the merchants were expected to drift in and out of the station during the Christmas season with their best wishes sealed in small, dollar-sized envelopes. The envelopes would be pinned on the spindly little tree. A well pinned tree would be taken down two days before Christmas so that the contents of the envelopes could be divided and put into larger manila envelopes for equal distribution to the men throughout the station. If the tree still had that skimpy and under-fed look two days before Christmas, it wouldn't come down. The boys in blue would get a little testy. Letting an envelope-starved tree stand meant that in the days and weeks that followed there would be an unsettling police presence flooding all over town, particularly on Main Street. The merchants would get the message. If they didn't hear about the tree's anemic condition directly, it would be reflected by an increase in parking citations--or tickets, as they were more commonly known. Disgruntled shoppers on Main Street were not a merchant's delight. And, too, it had to be remembered, Elton Head was surrounded by other little cities. Buses went to the other little cities. Even if not, since the end of the war, quite a few Elton Headers had acquired cars. The postwar boom had seen to that.     Over the years, sometimes the parking tickets and the Christmas tree connection worked; sometimes it didn't. One year the bones of the tree didn't come down until the Fourth of July.     Nobody was happy. Copyright © 2000 James McEachin. All rights reserved.