Arts Desk

In the Details: The Many Lives of Crime Novelist David Swinson

David Swinson wasn’t supposed to be a cop. Not for 15 years, anyway.

When Swinson joined the Metropolitan Police Department in 1994, it wasn’t for the paycheck, and it wasn’t out of civic duty. It was supposed to be more of a boho diversion, the latest stop in an eccentric life. He wanted to be a writer.

“At the time, I had this romantic notion that it’d be a great adventure. I’d get a bunch of material, and I’d leave in five years,” Swinson says. “I wasn’t prepared for the way it would get into my blood. I really, honestly, genuinely believed that I would leave after five years, but I ended up loving it. Next thing I knew, 10, 15 years had gone by.”

Swinson, now 52, retired from MPD in 2009, having closed more than 100 cases and earned an Officer of the Year award and numerous other commendations for his investigations as a burglary detective. Early in the 2000s, he made headlines for breaking the case of “the second-story man,” a heroin addict who scaled the walls of homes in Adams Morgan and Logan Circle.

But those police bona fides aren’t even the most colorful aspects of Swinson’s life on evidence in his debut crime novel, A Detailed Man. The book follows a detective named Ezra Simeon, who shares a few traits with his creator.

Most grabbingly, his face.

Simeon, like Swinson, suffers from Bell’s palsy, a condition that’s left half his face frozen in a leaden grimace. He wears a goatee, much like the author’s close-cropped one, to “conceal the part of [his] lip that droops because of the paralysis.” Simeon has an in-born knowledge of the criminal mind, a well-practiced spiel to explain his disability to gawkers, and a complex and tortured interior life. When the book opens, the character is pushing paper as part of a detail working through cold cases—his superiors don’t want him in the field because of his condition. But Simeon soon finds himself working the high-profile homicide of a young escort discovered on the banks of the Anacostia. The murder takes Simeon across the District’s strata, from pawn shops and street corners to posh townhouses.

But where most crime novels center on plot and heavy atmosphere, A Detailed Man places much of the action inside its protagonist’s head. “I really wanted a character that was flawed,” Swinson says. “I envisioned him being this very cool, likable character that’s not freaky. But when you see him, it’s something he’s so self-conscious about.”

The book, Swinson stresses, isn’t based on any actual casework. And Simeon’s personal life is much less tidy than that of his creator: Swinson has a wife, a kid, and a Northern Virginia backyard. (Never mind where: He doesn’t want the wrong guy to learn where he lives.) But Swinson is quick to say he’s poured a lot of himself into Simeon, including a punk-rock young adulthood and a detour through Hollywood’s margins. “If I were the type of author to just research and come up with characters not based on experience, that’d be great,” Swinson says. “But I can’t write otherwise. I can’t write about what I don’t know. It wouldn’t be natural for me.”

Technically, A Detailed Man isn’t Swinson’s first novel. He wrote one called The Apple Tree—“about Armageddon”—when he was 17, and submitted it to Little, Brown and Company, which sent him an equally apocalyptic rejection notice. He was “devastated,” he says, and didn’t work on fiction again until his junior year of college, when he began “writing cheesy screenplays, mostly class projects.” At the end of the 1970s, he transferred from Montreat-Anderson College in North Carolina to California State University, Long Beach.

He worked toward completing a film degree, but dropped out in the early ’80s and opened a record shop, which he says was eventually driven out of town by residents uncomfortable with “all the punks running down Main Street.”

Connections made in the store helped him promote a Social Distortion gig at a nearby venue. By 1987, he was the full-time booker at Bogart’s in Long Beach, bringing in names like Nick Cave, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Devo, Pixies, and Throwing Muses. For local nights, he invented a booking system called “the unlimited guest list” as an egalitarian alternative to the pay-to-play regime that dominated many California clubs at the time.

At Bogart’s, Swinson put on several “Evenings of Conversation,” a spoken-word series that featured Hunter S. Thompson, Timothy Leary, John Waters, Jim Carroll, and other literary and film figures of that ilk. In 1990, the gang put out an album on Atlantic Records titled Sound Bites From the Counter Culture, culled from a few of those evenings.

Despite the notoriously drug-addled company he kept, Swinson stood out from the hard-partying corners of his scene. He says he was “straight-edge” save for a cigarette habit and the occasional boozy night out. “He didn’t seem punk at all, but he was huge in punk rock,” says Tim Grobaty, a columnist for the Long Beach Press-Telegram who’s known Swinson since his California days. “He wasn’t an anarchist. He didn’t seem to have any of the rage the scene had at the time. He was always more intelligent than you’d thought a punk promoter would be.”

By the end of the ’80s, Swinson was producing music videos with his friend Bill Henderson, a director. One night, while drinking at Leary’s house, they came up with the idea for a spiritual sequel to Easy Rider, a digressive road movie in which two bikers would roam the West, encounter a series of seerlike eccentrics, and grapple with the legacy of the 1960s’ counterculture. They called it Roadside Prophets.

Henderson wanted the two to co-direct the film on a shoestring budget with a small cast of friends, the Los Angeles Times reported in 1991. They brought in screenwriter Abbe Wool, who had co-written Sid and Nancy. But when Fine Line Features, a now-defunct division of New Line Cinema, bristled at working with two first-time directors, Wool took the helm with Swinson as a producer. Henderson was paid and removed from the project. “I bought a friend out,” Swinson says. “I should’ve stayed with Billy, but I turned Hollywood.”

Swinson managed to get some old pals into Roadside Prophets. John Doe, of X, starred with Beastie BoysAdam Horowitz, and Thompson and Leary both made cameos. The film came out in 1992, and flopped. “We all had a very D.I.Y. sensibility, and in many ways, I still do,” Swinson says. “If we realized what we were doing, we would’ve seen the stumbling blocks and crashed into them. Nobody was around to say, ‘You can’t make a movie! Do you know how hard it is to make a movie?’ I think I was pretty naïve and pretty innocent about the whole thing, so I didn’t know how hard it was.”

Swinson then tried to sell a film treatment of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas alongside producer Laila Nabulsi—who would work on a different adaptation of the Thompson novel, with Johnny Depp, later in the ’90s. No studios bit, so a disillusioned Swinson gave up his short-lived Hollywood career.

Moving to D.C. made sense: Although Swinson spent parts of his childhood abroad—his father’s State Department career took the family to Beirut, Mexico City, Majorca, and Stockholm—he spent much of his childhood here, attended the former Western High School, and worked at a long-gone coffeeshop not far where he grew up in Dupont Circle. After completing his Cal State degree in 1993, he headed back east.

Despite Swinson and Simeon’s colorful backgrounds, these days there’s little of freewheeling California in Swinson’s brittle, decidely noirish prose. In one memorable, moving passage of A Detailed Man, he describes what kept his stand-in going despite personal setbacks. All those years working alongside detectives, officers, and assistant U.S. attorneys led to “a bond created by fraternity, years and years of sodality engrafted in us through the installation of some magical oath.”

“My writing style was always dark, with very broken characters,” he says. “Everything I wrote [in California] had to do with the ‘lost generation’ or fallen people. It was not until I became a cop that I truly understood what dark and broken really was.”

As a detective, Swinson and his colleagues fine-tuned a technique he calls “narco-fencing,” which detectives used to tie burglaries to larger criminal cases. “Most guys in law enforcement don’t have the type of background that encourages you to think differently,” says one ATF agent, who worked with Swinson on a long-term investigation, although he could just as easily be describing Simeon. “He didn’t do the typical bullshit. He tried to solve problems without going back to the same stuff over and over.”

Unlike Simeon, the consequences of Swinson’s palsy are mostly interior. “People say I look normal, but I don’t feel normal,” he says. “I’ve bitten through my lip several times. I twitch. I have some very obvious side effects that have affected my life. I mean, I can’t smile. I remember once, when my daughter was about three years old, she went, ‘Look, Daddy!’ and she smiles with the right side of her face, and says, ‘I’m smiling like you, Daddy!’ It was cute, but it was sort of sad.” The condition, which Swinson has had since 2003, kept him from some assignments and made some colleagues uneasy. But mostly, he continued his work much as he’d always done it.

Swinson married in 2000. But he began having crippling back problems, he says, and when he hit 15 years with the force, around when his daughter was born, “the decision was made.” It was time to retire.

Swinson had begun working on A Detailed Man in 2004, and in 2008 he landed with his current agent, Nat Sobel. They eventually found a perch with Dymaxicon, a new publishing house owned by a software firm that eschews advances for a 50/50 split with authors. Last month, the book hit No. 1 on Amazon’s noir fiction chart—though it probably helped that the Kindle version was free for a few days.

Two and a half weeks ago, Swinson celebrated the book’s release at Arlington’s One More Page Books. You couldn’t imagine a scene more different from Swinson’s punk-rock youth: There were family, some friends, and several children sporting makeshift police badges. Former colleagues recalled how Swinson would end a 12-hour shift and immediately go home to write.

Swinson couldn’t stay put for more than a minute or two, dashing off to greet an old sergeant, and then a crowd of assistant U.S. attorneys huddled by the front door. Half of his face may be frozen, but he was definitely beaming. “I always knew that is what I would do in life, sooner than later,” he says. “It did not happen according to my timing, though. Maybe for the best.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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  • REALtalk

    David is a great guy. Congrats!

  • milou morgan

    David Swinson takes you by the hand in an intimate journey of fascinating complexity. A great book!!

  • GC

    Hard to believe this was a first book.

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