by Grace Topping
Since I'll be standing in a long line waiting to vote, and who knows when I'll ever be seen again, I'm reposting an interview I conducted with Mark Bergin but with an update. Mark's terrific book, Apprehension, was a 2020 Silver Falchion Award finalist.
What would prompt an award-winning reporter to become a rookie police officer? For retired Alexandria, Virginia, police lieutenant, Mark Bergin, it was the same commitment to public service that motivated him to write a novel to raise awareness of police suicide and donate half his profits to programs that would help combat it. Mark’s debut novel, Apprehension, is being released July 30. Kirkus Reviews called it A gritty and authentic new voice in police fiction. It was a pleasure talking to Mark and learning more about him, his police career, and his novel.
Tonight a cop loses everything. But today he can save a kid. Detective John Kelly was a solid professional until he failed to stop the murder of his kidnapped niece. Kelly’s family thinks he did nothing to punish her killer, who died before trial, but Kelly can’t confess the secret, shockingly violent thing he did, a secret about to be dug up by his fellow detectives. And he’ll be ruined. Broken, twitchy
and hung over, Kelly must push past this threat and focus on a pedophile trial, a slam-dunk conviction, except the defense attorney is Rachel Cohen, Kelly’s new girlfriend. Rachel just told him she’s pregnant, but she can’t tell him her job forces her to destroy him on the stand. Rachel also can’t reveal she’s investigating a twisted team of drug cops. While his friends work in secret to save him, Kelly is forced to the breaking point – and beyond.
Welcome, Mark, to Writers Who Kill.
After a career as a police officer, what prompted you to write about it?
high I’ve wanted to write a book. I was a big reader as a kid and inhaled novels by Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Hammond Innes, Adam Hall, John D. MacDonald, and Raymond Chandler. Later, Joseph Wambaugh, George V. Higgins, and Ed McBain. My days working as a reporter, then as a police officer, left little time for writing. I had ideas for a detective story thirty years ago and took pages of notes but set them aside. In 2013 I had two heart attacks, actually died, which brought on my retirement a bit early and gave me some free time to begin the book. Five years later, ta da.
You set Apprehension in 1988. Why over thirty years ago?
That is when I first took notes for the novel, and that planted the story in that time frame. A criminal law change that’s key to the plot occurred in 1989, and I wanted the book to be authentic. Also, Apprehension is about communication, miscommunication, and misunderstandings, so if anybody in the story had cell phones, none of the drama would have happened.
Some of your characters turn out to be different than portrayed or have a different agenda than expected. While working on the force, did you find that the people you worked with weren’t always as they appeared on the surface?
Everybody lies; everybody has a face they put on. But I think most of my fellow cops were exactly what I knew them to be. We spent a lot of time together. We rode solo in cruisers but were sent two or three at a time to most calls. You learn how many you can rely on, which for me was most. Suspects? All liars. Civilians? Most will lie to us. “Aren’t these your drugs I found in your pants?” “Not my pants.”
John Kelly suffers from the effects of a case that really hit close to home. It affects his relationship with his family and ultimately has him turning to alcohol. Today, would this be considered a form of PTSD?
It would, and we would deal with it more aggressively or more compassionately. There are better resources available now and more acceptance of asking for help or pushing it. It doesn’t mean more help is taken. I am a member of my department’s peer debriefing team, who can meet with and talk to officers having trouble. There are bad calls, and there are bad family or health situations that pressure us. We help them air it out and direct help when we can and where it’s needed.
In your 1988 setting, John Kelly is reluctant to turn to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for help because of the stigma or reflection of it in his record. Is that still a problem in 2019?
Yes. It’s better than it was, but I still know cops who didn’t get the help they thought they needed. Maybe that kind of help isn’t available, or in the
form they think they need it. But there is still mistrust of EAP and other counseling. I am donating half my profits to programs that combat police suicide, among them the National Police Suicide Foundation. NPSF runs a no-tell hotline, one cops can call and know their department won’t be told. They don’t want to lose their jobs, and that’s a greater fear than exists for most occupations. Your dentist or hairdresser won’t lose their career for seeking counseling, but cops can. Or they believe they can, which is functionally the same thing.
You address the issue of suicide by members of the public, prisoners, and police officers themselves. Is this an issue you dealt with often and wanted to raise awareness of it?
In my twenty-eight year career, one fellow Alexandria police officer was killed in the line of duty. But
in the same time, three officers took their own lives, as well as two city deputies. And just last year, a dispatcher was a victim of suicide. Six to one. That’s a heavier ratio than normal, but every year more law enforcement kill themselves than are killed by others. We don’t talk about that, but I want to. I hope the book prompts some conversations.
career you more than likely dealt with painful situations. How do you separate yourself emotionally from the seedier things you dealt with and now write about?
Maybe I didn’t. My cardiologist tells me my two heart attacks were caused by stress, and he forbade me to go back to work. It’s weird having a cardiologist. Also, I ate too much, drank too much, internalized things, and didn’t talk with my family or others. A sad thing about retiring is I finally learned how much my family worried about me, once they didn’t have to worry anymore. They never said, and I never brought it up for fear of upsetting them. So maybe that’s a happy thing about retiring.
A theme throughout your book is how the members of the local police force and those of local jurisdictions look out for each other. While a good thing, how do the authorities prevent the police from turning a blind eye to officers who are abusing the system?
There is a wide line between helping partners through tough times or administrative jams and turning a blind eye to brutal or criminal acts. In Alexandria, I knew fellow officers who reported brutality when it occurred. As a supervisor and commander, a big part of my job was investigating force incidents involving officers, or allegations of wrongdoing. Some departments don’t control themselves and allow a culture of brutality or cruel behavior to continue, if not thrive. We see enough reports in the news to know this occurs. It makes most cops sick and makes it harder for them to do their jobs. I was very lucky as a reporter to have found Alexandria wasn’t like that. Here, we start from a pretty high position of
honor, and keep a close eye to make sure we stay that way. As a reporter, getting to know good cops here was the major reason I decided I could become a cop.
Frequently cases are dismissed on a technicality. How did you as a police officer and now a writer deal with that?
Gotta roll with it. Every cop can recite cases that were decided unfairly, where a clearly guilty person got off. Once I watched a girl buy crack cocaine and put it in her right pocket and walk behind a truck. When my partners got to her, vectored in by me, she had
crack in her left pocket. Not guilty. We couldn’t prove the crack I’d seen was the crack she had, so the judge decided we didn’t have the right to stop and search her. You try not to get invested in it. It’s your job. You are paid to be there whether they go in or not. If they do stupid stuff, you’d get them another day.
John Kelly uses one of the best pick-up lines I’ve ever heard: I’m thinking there are so many different, better, happier, shinier places to be than here, and if you name one, I’ll take you there. I might have fallen for that one myself. How was it including romance in your book?
Most police procedurals are heavy on plot and lean on characterization. You have a good balance of both and show the emotional effects of police work on police officers and their families. Given that, if you had a chance to start your work life again, would you select police work?
In a heartbeat. Absolutely. It was a ton of fun, very rewarding. But it’s not for everyone. For very few, actually. I am glad my kids didn’t go into police work. They’re too smart, thoughtful, and kind for that. They could have done it, though, and succeeded. They’re tough.
Do you still feel a close connection to the police force and police activity? Like once a police officer always a police officer?
I miss it. I volunteer at the department just to keep in contact. As I mentioned, I’m a peer debriefer. I also do public fingerprinting for civilians. I’ve relaxed a bit, and while I no longer need to sit watching the door for bad guys in restaurants, I usually want to. Sometimes when I’m driving around places I used to work, it will feel quiet, and I unconsciously reach down to turn up the volume on the police radio that, of course, isn’t there.
I would like to read more about John Kelly. Is Apprehension a standalone book or the first in a series featuring him?
SPOILER ALERT: I started it as a standalone but I ended up liking my people, so this is the first of at least four books. As I wrote Apprehension, I constantly came up with scenes and themes that didn’t quite fit into this story, and the notes have coalesced into outlines and plots for other books. I take a lot of notes and, oddly, my favorite place to work on the book is in the car. Not write, but take audio notes of story ideas. I work out a lot of plot points while driving.
What has been the reaction from previous co-workers to your writing? Supportive or afraid they’ll show up in your book?
They’ve been very supportive, and many have already ordered the book. I tried hard not to model characters after real people, but some of my friends’ and enemies’ characteristics have come through. A lot of the small scenes in Apprehension did happen. Wart Lip, “Oh, is you Jewish?” and the shotgun suicide
are real events. There was a witch doctor in Alexandria and a drug case disappeared, but no connection was ever shown. But we didn’t use the magnets. Joked about it, though.
Please tell us about your journey to publication. Was it a long one?
Well, I’m sixty so that’s long. I started writing Apprehension in 1988, took some notes during a very hard time in my career. My first marriage was falling apart, not the good one I’m in now. I was working sixty-seventy hours a week in street-level drug enforcement and in court three days a week. The ideas for the book burst out in one week and stopped. I had three typewritten pages of notes with a story beginning, some middle, and an end. When I retired, I knew I had to do something, so I pulled out the notes, filled in the gaps, a lot of gaps, and wrote the book in about a year. I thought I was done, but my editor said no, so I rewrote it for another
year, and shopped it for almost two more years until I got a publisher.
I’d originally planned to tell a story about what it was like for a squad of white cops arresting mostly young black men. That was the reality of drug enforcement in the eighties and nineties in
Alexandria, and many cities. Drug dealing was a poor man’s job, and the poor in Alexandria were black, so there were obvious racial issues. We would love to try to arrest white people when we saw them buying to try to balance our stats. But when I was being rolled from the ambulance into Sentara Norfolk Heart Hospital for my surgery, I had a nurse learn my condition, a hundred percent blockage of the main coronary artery called the LAD, and tell me, “That’s the widowmaker. You aren’t supposed to be with us anymore. God’s got something more for you to do here.” I’m not sure I believe that, but when I began writing, I tried to find something to make the writing worthwhile, so I decided to dedicate half of my profits to police suicide prevention. Might only be sixty or seventy dollars, but every little bit helps. We’ll see.
What are you working on now?
With your book being released on July 30, what activities do you have planned to promote it?
My book release party is Saturday, August 3, at 2:00 p.m. at the Alexandria Police Association Hall, 3010 Colvin Street in Alexandria’s West End. Everyone is invited. There will be beer, which may make my reading sound better. I am signed up for my very first author panel on October 6 at Gum Spring Library in Loudoun County through the Sisters In Crime writers group. It’s called Incorporating Real-Life Law Enforcement Practices into Crime Fiction. I figure I know something about that. I’m going to the Creatures, Crimes and Creativity writers’ conference in Columbia, Maryland, in September, and the Bouchercon mystery books conference in Dallas in November. I hope to be on some panels at both of those. I like talking about writing and cops.
Beyond that, I’m sure I will have signings and readings but nothing else is scheduled yet. Maybe a fun panel discussion would be Cops, Crime, and Cozies. I know someone who just published her first cozy mystery called Staging is Murder, and it is a great read. Her name is, um, Grace Topping! Same as yours! How about that!
Thank you, Mark. And thank you for the plug.
To pre-order a copy of Apprehension, visit the publisher's website
To connect with Mark, visit his website: https://markberginwriter.com/
and his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Mark-Bergin-writer-302289804043548/
Mark Bergin graduated from Boston University with a degree in journalism then worked four years as a newspaper reporter, winning the Virginia Press Association Award for general news reporting before joining the Alexandria, Virginia, Police Department in 1986. Twice named Police Officer of the Year for narcotics and robbery investigations, he served in most of the posts described in Apprehension, his debut novel, and rose to the rank of lieutenant.
Bergin lives in Alexandria and Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, with his wife Ruth, an attorney and former public defender. They have two children. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow his blog at markberginwriter.com
I LIVED. I DIED. I LIVED AGAIN!