David Putnam’s end note to the seventh in his Bruno Johnson thriller series shows not only that truth can be stranger than fiction but that sometimes you can put different truths together and wind up with an even stranger romp. In “The Heartless,” Putnam draws on an August 1995 jailbreak in San Bernadino, CA, the largest breakout in the county’s history, a record that still stands today.
The conspiracy, organization, and execution were “stunning,” Putnam writes. Six suspects on trial for separate murders “used accomplices armed with cordless drills to take out a window in the visiting area of the jail.” Putnam gloms onto this bizarre incident and uses it to challenge his black protagonist hero, Bruno Johnson, while recreating depressingly authentic and frightening scenes of Los Angeles neighborhoods taken over by gangs such as the Crips and Bloods.
A well-seasoned high-level cop who had left the violent crimes team of the San Bernadino Sheriff’s Department, Putnam notes that the San Bernadino jailbreak got him called back into SWAT team service. With his partner, he tracked down the first suspect, a “death row eligible,” who had beheaded a woman in front of her five-year old daughter. Eventually, the other escapees were caught — a harrowing story given grisly flesh and blood reenactment in Putnam’s (innocuously titled) new crime novel — but the author says he couldn’t resist giving the jailbreak ringleader a “sexual proclivity involving women’s feet.”
In “The Heartless,” Louis Borkow, who also decapitates a woman, kills not only to protect and enhance his criminal empire but to exact revenge on anyone who disrespects his foot fetish. Of course, Bruno, who works as a bailiff in a Compton Court, will take him down, but how and where and when constitute the core of Putnam’s tale. “There isn’t any other job in the world that offers such excitement, such pure emotion,” Bruno says, as he lets himself be lured back into action.
A reader may wonder if the new book is a prequel or sequel, but the thriller does stand on its own, even though an unresolved conclusion about Bruno’s wayward 15-year-old daughter, Olivia, in love with a punk, makes it obvious that book number eight will be on the way. One hopes that Bruno emerges as more than a big, super-smart cop who intuits his way to solving crime based on experience, peer respect, sheer brawn, and procedural savvy.
Told in the first person when Bruno is in charge of the narrative but in the third when events involve Borkow or gang members, “The Heartless” unrolls in alternating short chapters, a familiar technique of suspense novels, but that gives Putnam a chance to show off his cop cred. For example, why is a Charter Arms Bulldog .44 revolver, the same make and model used by The Son of Sam, Bruno’s small gun of choice?
Though Bruno doesn’t really come alive (what does he look and sound like?), “The Heartless” can boast some interesting secondary characters, such as Bruno’s pal, Judge Phillip Connors, who wants to get into the action, mix it up, using “antiquated terms” reminiscent of old crime novels and movies, as Bruno notes. He’s like a “lost literature professor from the ’60s who had stopped for directions to Haight and Ashbury.” Nice.
“The Heartless” is Putnam’s compelling insider look at the criminal justice system: prison, recidivism, corruption, narcotics in and out of jail, the vulnerability of largely black and Latino adolescents and the decay of low-income, drug-ridden urban areas. Bruno’s girlfriend, a deputy district attorney, worked in the “educated or intellectual section of the justice system,” Bruno said. “I populated the knuckle-dragging street-cop part that brought in the bloodied absconders to answer for their crime.”
His tour of criminal neighborhoods, the frustrations faced by police and the inferred failure of social services should be required reading for all law-enforcement personnel. “Sunset Boulevard never slept. People prowled both sides of the street: hookers, drug users, and lost souls, all of them looking for something. Johns or an easy mark to clip or for a place in this world they’d never find.”