Book excerpt: 'Midnight Alley's' dispirited messenger of death

When a police detective has to tell a mother that her child has died, he should be Machiavellian about it — that's the lesson Ash Levine describes in "Midnight Alley" (Oceanview: 285 pp., $25.95), the second in a thriller series by former Times reporter Miles Corwin. When the bodies of two young black men are found in a Venice alleyway, Ash is called in to solve the case because it's highly sensitive: One of the two victims is the son of an L.A. City Councilman who's extremely critical of the LAPD. In the following excerpt, Ash describes how the search for clues begins with the victims' families — and this causes him to reflect on how he handles the most dreaded part of his job.

*

It was sunny downtown, one of those rare smogless days when the San Gabriel Mountains were clearly etched against a powder-blue sky. But as I zigzagged west on the Santa Monica Freeway, I encountered a fine mist that thickened as I neared the ocean. When I pulled up in front of Winfield's mother's house, the fog fluttered above the treetops and the air was brackish. I cut the engine and sat in the car for a few minutes. The breakup of my marriage didn't convince me to leave homicide, but one too many death notifications might. This was the part of the job I most hated.

My old mentor, Bud Carducci, had a theory that every cop has a preordained limit of murders. When the detective reached his limit, when he simply could not tolerate another senseless death — then he had to leave homicide. I hadn't reached that limit yet, but I felt I was getting close. During my years at South Bureau Homicide, it seemed like I was doing several notifications a week. When I finally was promoted to Felony Special I was greatly relieved — partly because my caseload was lighter, but also because there would be fewer times I'd have to deliver the four most devastating words I knew — Your son is dead.

One part of the process particularly disturbed me: the immediate lack of honesty. Carducci had taught me that a homicide detective never simply breaks the bad news to family members. Relatives often will become so hysterical that they're unable to provide the detective with any useful information. "Get as much background as you can, first," Carducci advised me, "then tell them." I'd argued that I found it offensive to stall a mother, to casually chat with her, to ask her questions, all the while putting off telling her what she had a right to know.

"Don't we owe her some honesty?" I'd asked Carducci.

"No," Carducci had said flatly. "We owe her only one thing: to use every resource and ploy we have— including snowing her — to solve her son's murder."

Staring out my windshield, I could see the crowns of the palms begin to sway. I rolled down my windows. It wasn't the usual offshore breeze, but a hard wind from the east blowing the fog out to sea, fluttering the silvery leaves of the Texas sage bordering the side of the house. I climbed out of the Saturn, walked up the steps to the porch, and swallowed a few quick deep breaths. "God, how I hate this," I muttered to myself, knocking on the door.

I saw a peephole open.

I held my badge up and said, "Hello, Mrs. Winfield. I'm LAPD Detective Ash Levine. I'd like to talk to you about your son."

She swung open the door and glanced up at me, worried. "What's he done?"

Excerpted from "Midnight Alley: An Ash Levine Novel" by Miles Corwin (Oceanview Publishing, 2012). Used with permission of the publisher.