Bad Guys Make Good Sources

Cops, criminals and drug addicts are the best sources for crime stories. Especially addicts. They’re always on the hunt for drug money, and the way they slide into one easy dodge after another to get it puts them in the middle of everything illicit. I cultivated the acquaintance of addicts when I first started writing, but I got older and most of them didn’t. By the time I reached middle age they were all dead, and the younger ones scared me. That left cops and criminals.

The type of criminal who is all business will rarely serve as a source unless it suits some agenda of his. Ditto for cops, only more so. The kind of criminal who will give you information is the type that drifts from caper to scam to rip-off for the drama, and money is just a bonus. I knew a lot of them, still do. They love to talk. Sometimes they talk so much you have to use what they say judiciously, so they don’t get in jam.

It’s hit and miss with cops. An arson investigator who was all business once put me on to a story about an arsonist, because he had an agenda. The arsonist had recently been sentenced to prison, and the investigator wanted that sentence upheld on appeal. He gave me copies of police documents, and happily took me on a tour to show me scorch marks on dozens of homes the arsonist had tried but failed to set on fire.

Another kind of cop, a brutal, narrow-minded racist detective, gave me a solid tip. He had an agenda too. His partner had been shot to death in the line of duty, and he’d spent weeks pressuring every criminal he knew every way he could to find out who killed him. Some criminals – white guys who shared his values – were his buddies. He just put out the word to them. Others, gangsters in general, black gangsters in particular, were not his buddies. He hated them, not so much for what they did but for what they were, and he used various threats to find out what they knew, which turned out to be nothing.

Eventually one of his mob-connected pals, a gifted burglar who did 2nd story work for the Chicago Mafia, fingered the killer. A short time later the cop called me, and in effect fingered his informant. I was glad for the tip, but I could never figure out why he gave it to me. Years later a former prosecutor told me. “He didn’t want anybody he owed that big a favor around town, so he gave you his name, then told him (the tipster) that the press knew what he’d done, so he’d better leave. And it worked.”

The detective who gave me the tip is a central figure in a story titled “The Key Man” in my new anthology of crime stories, The Family That Couldn’t Sleep at Night, published by Calumet Editions.

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