By the Book: An ‘Unnatural Murder’ on the Left Coast

"Unnatural Murder" by Connie Dial.
“Unnatural Murder” by Connie Dial. Background: alekleks/iStock/Thinkstock

The Permanent Press, the publisher of Connie Dial’s third Josie Corsino murder mystery, Unnatural Murder, wonders if by calling her series “Police Procedurals” they inadvertently did Dial an injustice.

The term is often used to refer to a “lesser sub-species of crime writing,” and her books are so much more. In spite of this remark, however, one of the most effective aspects of Unnatural Murder is the authentic glimpse it provides into the procedures of police work. It’s clear that the author, who had a 27-year career with the LAPD working Hollywood’s mean streets as a narcotics detective and then going on to become the area’s commanding officer, knows not just the ins and outs of investigation but the personality clashes that typically define the culture of the workplace—the pecking order of rank, spoken and unspoken, the hum of frowned-upon sexual attraction, the competitive defense of veterans when smart new people come on board and, most of all, the sense (more spoken than unspoken) of how politics and money can taint professional behavior. Of course, ethical Josie Corsino would never be tempted.

Josie, a 40-something LAPD captain in Hollywood, is also the mother of David, a talented pianist and painter who has taken up with a woman his mother’s age—and, to Josie’s dismay, is not making use of  his artistic talents. Josie’s husband of 24 years has just walked out, fed up with her priorities (a passion for work over all), and though Josie has no regrets (finding solace in the arms of a handsome colleague), she wishes she and her son were closer. She does, however, enjoy excellent relations with her staff, superiors and subordinates—and especially with her best buddy, Lt. Marge Bailey, whose funny, dead-on, potty-mouth expressions make for lively exchanges, especially as the two women eat, drink and banter in local bars. Josie’s excellent at what she does, so much so that, alas, the reader never doubts she will prevail. She’s moved up and will stay there. As Marge says, “Glass ceilings only bother assholes too stupid or weak to break them.” She and Josie dislike manipulative women who play the gender card, who “somewhere hidden in their subconscious minds, expected and wanted to be treated differently because they were women.” Still, as Dial shows, bias against women is out there: A powerful real estate developer, whose son has been killed, sneers “A woman!” when he meets Josie, as if “he’d just discovered a big blue turd standing on his porch.”

Unnatural Murder is so named for the two transgender victims whose bodies are discovered at the start of the book, but it would be a stretch to say that the murder mystery is a thriller. Moreover, Josie’s never in serious trouble. She’s super smart and instinctively savvy, but the reader wishes she were fleshed out more. Her private life—her son, her lover—seems extraneous to the main action, though the domestic scenes do confirm both her ruling passion for her job and her conflict over the consequences of her own affair. “There was no way she could separate her job from her personal life. As a captain she couldn’t live with a man who worked for her…It was complicated on a lot of levels.” She adores what she does: “There was no way [Dial likes this phrase] to explain how good it felt knowing she was among an elite few who woke up every morning and got paid to strap on a gun and go look for trouble. She liked helping people too, but had to admit, without the dangerous, adrenaline-pumping aspects of this job, it would be social work and she’d be doing something else.”

Unnatural Murder presents memorable glimpses into the seedy parts of Hollywood (no “sparkling ink granite stars or celebrity impersonators. No tourists or paparazzi”), made even more disgusting by the heat wave gripping LA.

Josie’s turf is mostly vacant buildings, broken concrete with weeds, “alleys reeking of human waste”—territory inhabited by the homeless, runaways, addicts. As the news media continue to show, violent crime, especially in gang-infested areas, is hardly on the wane, and redressing police brutality, though of concern to law enforcement, has a ways to go. So, all the more power to Josie, and the dedicated men and women who follow procedures with intelligence and compassion.

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