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This Former DC Cop Just Wrote Your Favorite Summer Crime Novel

Swinson’s bio includes a Foreign Service childhood, a stint as a concert promoter, and a long run as a DC detective. He says finding stories was a motivation for joining the force. Photograph by Evy Mages.
Swinson’s bio includes a Foreign Service childhood, a stint as a concert promoter, and a long run as a DC detective. He says finding stories was a motivation for joining the force. Photograph by Evy Mages.

“I am not Frank Marr,” says David Swinson even as he does a not-bad impersonation of the protagonist of his new cop thriller, The Second Girl.

It’s true that Swinson isn’t exactly the Marr of my imagination, but in my mind they share Swinson’s scruffy beard, swept-back black hair, and dark bags under piercing blue eyes. As he protests, the author is perched on a stool, a tumbler of whiskey in his hand, in Shelly’s Back Room in downtown DC, where Marr also pops up in the book.

It’s not normally considered fair to connect the dots between a novelist and his characters, but in my years as a crime reporter at the Washington Post, I interviewed Swinson a dozen times and got to know him as a dedicated cop who was passionate about “the job.” Swinson rarely discussed his personal life, but I recognized in the tormented, cocaine-addicted cop-turned-private-eye of his fiction the strong, noirish moral code of the Swinson I knew nearly a decade ago.

The Second Girl also invites speculation about parallel realities. Marr navigates a Washington where Columbia Heights and Capitol Hill aren’t yet gentrified, yet their denizens send texts while detectives dig through witnesses’ social-media accounts for leads. The “run-down two-story row house on Kenyon Street Northwest” that Marr is staking out in the novel’s opening pages would go for almost $1 million today.

The curious mash-up is “street- and DC-authentic,” says George Pelecanos, the dean of Washington crime novelists and a Swinson fan. But the effect, like watching a movie set in the District but filmed in Baltimore, adds dimension to his main character’s detached introspection. It allows Swinson, a longtime observer of the city’s underbelly, to reflect on the development that has swept through the city’s neighborhoods. “There’s nothing wrong with progress,” Marr says as he spots the first signs of change. “Just know what you’re going to do with all the collateral damage.”

• • •

Swinson got into police work late.

The son of a Foreign Service officer, he grew up in Mexico City, Beirut, Stockholm, and finally Washington. When he was 14, his parents divorced and he started shuttling between households. In the turmoil, he turned to books and music. He graduated from Western High School, which was making its transition to becoming Duke Ellington School of the Arts. (“I played piano very well,” he says.) Powerfully attracted to fiction, he swiped novels by Graham Greene—still his favorite author—from his father’s bookshelves. At 17, he wrote a novel about students at a Christian college in a time of political upheaval. “I always wanted to be a writer of some kind,” says Swinson. “I thought that’s what I would end up doing.”

His first efforts, after moving to the West Coast to be with his mother in the early ’80s and enrolling at California State Long Beach, were in screenwriting. He also began promoting bands and eventually became a booking agent at Bogart’s, a popular nightclub on the Pacific Coast Highway. A lover of late-night discussions, he contacted Timothy Leary, the former Harvard psychologist and LSD advocate, and swashbuckling journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Somehow, Swinson convinced them to give talks at Bogart’s on slow nights.

To the club owners’ astonishment, Leary and Thompson packed the house. Swinson pays homage to Thompson in The Second Girl by having Marr devour grapefruits to boost an immune system battered by cocaine use. “Hunter was always eating grapefruit,” Swinson says. “It’s kind of ironic because I don’t think grapefruit is good for your immune system. But it’s there, for Hunter.”

Swinson hoped police work ‘would give me experience to help my writing.
I viewed it as method acting.’

In the early 1990s, Swinson hit his high point as a filmmaker when he coproduced—with some of the team who made the Sid Vicious biopic Sid & Nancy—a film titled Roadside Prophets, about two hipsters on a quest through Nevada. The pair encounter ’60s-vintage dropouts and drifters played by Arlo Guthrie, John Cusack, and even Leary, who spoofs himself. The Los Angeles Times called the movie “a desultory snooze,” though certain corners of the internet champion it as a cult sleeper.

By then, though, he had come to loathe Southern California’s thrall to celebrity and, wanting to do something more with his life, felt pulled back to Washington. He’d often thought of joining the police as an alternative—or an aid—to telling stories. “I thought it would give me some experience to help my writing,” he says. “Honestly, I kind of viewed it as Method acting.”

Swinson’s first assignment out of the academy, in 1994, was the 3rd District, patrolling the rough neighborhoods just north of downtown. After seven years, he was promoted to investigator, then detective. He made a specialty of investigating property crimes, turning down chances to work in higher-profile units. Solving burglaries, he believed, held the keys to solving worse crimes.

“He took each case very seriously and was very thorough,” says former police chief Charles Ramsey. “He’s one of the best detectives I had a chance to work with.”

Swinson eschewed the common practice of collaring street-level players to boost his arrest stats, instead using the crackheads and small-time slingers to go after bigger fish. “He was really good with informants,” says Detective Timothy Palchak, who attended the police academy with Swinson. “That wasn’t pushed at the time, at least on the district level. He realized that the people on the streets every day were his eyes and ears.”

In 2004, Swinson helped dismantle a large fencing operation that was buying high-tech goods stolen from DC offices, including a building occupied by the Secret Service. He later joined a federal task force that targeted drug gangs. The genesis of Frank Marr seems to date to Swinson’s time with the feds: Like the author, Marr is a successful narcotics detective who helped make federal drug cases. Unlike Swinson, he has his own cocaine habit; when his bosses discover it, they push him off the force. As a private investigator, Marr is unafraid to break the law—or someone’s bones—to solve clients’ problems. To fuel his addiction, he robs drug dealers. Says Swinson: “I loved the idea of playing with an amoral guy who has this history.”

• • •

Marr is a more complicated protagonist than Ezra Simeon, the detective who anchors Swinson’s first novel, A Detailed Man.

Simeon “was too much of a whiner, a little too much like me,” Swinson says. “I wanted someone who wasn’t so internal.”

Yet much of the pleasure of The Second Girl is the way Swinson invites us into the stream of Marr’s drug-addicted consciousness. Finding a teenage girl chained half naked to the floor of a bathroom in a stash house he’s robbing for drugs, Marr has a choice: ignore the captive girl and get away with the cocaine or rescue her and risk losing the fix. “For an instant I want to turn around and hightail it the hell outta here,” Marr says. “I want to pretend like I never saw this shit…This nature of mine is all about fight or flight, and right now it’s all flight.”

Grappling with a conscience twisted by his all-consuming habit—he isn’t above doing a line or two on a bathroom break while being interviewed by federal agents—Marr the private eye confronts questions of justice more immediately than the rules of the criminal-justice system ever allowed. Toward the end of The Second Girl, he has a chance to dispose of a vicious drug dealer but rejects the easy rectitude of a vigilante. “He’s not a cold-blooded killer,” says Swinson.

Not that Marr is incapable of a vendetta. Swinson—who has a three-book deal with Mulholland, an imprint of Little, Brown—is racing to finish a second Frank Marr novel for publication next year. As a ready story line, he drew on a series of burglaries I interviewed him about back in 2005, when thieves targeted iPods and other MP3 players. We were both struck by how personally the victims had taken the thefts, as if the criminals had gotten a glance into their souls via their playlists. In Swinson’s retelling, a burglar steals Marr’s prized vinyl records, the only connection the former detective has to his mother. The unwitting offenders provoke a rampage to retrieve the treasured disks.

In my Post story, Swinson was identified as a former punk-rock promoter and music lover—the only personal details he’d grant me—as a way of explaining why he sympathized with his victims’ loss of the then newfangled technology. “I don’t know how I survived without [an iPod],” he told me. “I would be destroyed if someone took it.”

Del Quentin Wilber reports for the Los Angeles Times and is the author of “A Good Month for Murder.” On Twitter, he’s @delwilber.

This article appears in our July 2016 issue of Washingtonian.

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