by Grace Topping
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. Kirkus Reviews called his novel, Apprehension, “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. www.amazon.com
Welcome, Mark, to Writers Who Kill.
After a career as a police officer, what prompted you to write about it?
Since junior 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 and 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.
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 2023?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 that 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 officers kill themselves than are killed by others. We don’t talk about that, but I want to. I hope the book prompts some conversations.
During your 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. When I was a supervisor and commander, a big part of my job was investigating excessive 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 did 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?
Hardest part of the whole book. I could never deliver that line, and since I’ve been married for almost thirty years, I’ve never had to. There’s no sex in the book, other than some oblique references and thoughts of off-screen feelings. Plenty of violence though. Maybe that doesn’t say good things about me. One friend cried and stopped reading at a certain scene. Another, a former cop, told me his nightmares came back after he read it. I thought, YES!
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 where 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.
What has been the reaction from previous co-workers to your writing? Supportive or afraid they’ll show up in one of your books or short stories?
They’ve been very supportive, and many have 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.
How have the last few years been for you and your writing?
Outstanding, surprising and challenging. Writing the second book has proven harder than the first. I’d rather not know now what I didn’t know then, and I am too demanding of my output, over-laboring over passages instead of grinding through to an end and then laboring over polishing. And the difficulties I had finding a publisher were daunting, so I feel gun-shy of rushing back to that part of the process. But… I have broken through that internal logjam, and St. Michael’s Day is close to completion, maybe in a few months. Plus, I have found a better path to publication, a hybrid I like that gives me the same control over characters and covers that I had the first time through. Apprehension may not have achieved great sales but it got noticed: it was a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award at the Killer Nashville crime writers conference and won an award from the Public Safety Writers Association.
And, oddly to me, I have found some success and fun in writing short stories. They never interested me until I was invited to join a writers’ group in Alexandria called the Royal Writers Secret Society, successful and talented novelists and short story artists who weren’t really paying attention when they let me in, but I have learned from them. I’ve had five short stories published in the past two years. Two of them appear in anthologies that have been nominated for Anthony Awards this year: “Stay Here, Honey” in Land of Ten Thousand Thrills. Look for that in Paranoia Blues. Others are “Perception” in The Tattered Blue Line, “The Gravity of Hope” in The Eviction of Hope, and “Sometimes Maggie Stands With Me” in the Creatures, Crimes and Creativity Anthology 2021. This last one isn’t for sale—it was given to conference attendees, but I’m very proud of it. (Want a story copy? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
"Stay Here, Honey" was my first short story, written for a reading at a DC Noir at the Bar reading. Afterward, a guy came up and told me how much he liked it, and that I should send it to (a mystery magazine of great stature, which ignored it). I had to ask somebody and found out he was James Grady, famous and talented author of Six Days of the Condor. Fanboy me could have swooned.
Thank you, Mark. I look forward to your second book.
To order a copy of Apprehension, visit the publisher's website at: https://www.inkshares.com/books/apprehension or your favorite bookseller.
Find The Eviction of Hope at https://tinyurl.com/3n9nabh6
Find The Tattered Blue Line at https://tinyurl.com/4pe9azjv
Find Land of Ten Thousand Thrills at https://tinyurl.com/498c75x9
Find Paranoia Blues at https://tinyurl.com/3ds4umhn
Find Apprehension at https://tinyurl.com/4tnrxmjw
To connect with Mark, visit his website: https://markberginwriter.com/
and his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Mark-Bergin-writer-302289804043548/
Grace Topping is the author of the Laura Bishop Mystery Series.