Books Behind the Badge
After work, Hugh Holton trades real-life thrills for the fictional kind.
By Michael Marsh
Shortly after he became a police detective in 1972, Hugh Holton investigated the death of a man who'd been shot five times near Fifth Avenue and Kedzie. Holton and his partner each took one side of the street, ringing doorbells and questioning residents. At the door of a well-kept brownstone, the detective found himself looking up at a tall, bald, heavyset man. The man invited him in, and Holton sat on a couch. His host sat on a hassock by the door; it sagged under his weight.
"I'd just like to ask you a couple of questions," said Holton. "Did you know him?"
He'd found his first lead. "What can you tell me about him?"
"I hated him."
"Well, why don't we just cut to the chase? Why don't you tell me what happened?"
"I killed him."
Holton was shocked, yet the man's matter-of-fact demeanor convinced him that he was safe. "Where is the gun?" It was hidden in a nearby chest. Holton read the man his rights and tried to handcuff him; the cuffs were too small for his thick wrists, but he walked politely to the car. That night a satisfied Holton returned to his apartment and settled down with Lawrence Sanders's novel The First Deadly Sin. If he could write about the events of that day, thought Holton, he'd have his own novel.
Since 1994 the mystery imprint Forge Books has published seven of Holton's fast-paced thrillers detailing the exploits of Larry Cole, a detective for the Chicago Police Department. Some of Holton's novels are straight police stories, while others incorporate science fiction or fantasy. He's currently the third-watch commander at the Wentworth District station, and he writes after work, finishing from two to six pages a night. Holton's books have earned him critical and popular acclaim: last June, at BookExpo America at McCormick Place, he had to extend a book signing to accommodate the crowd.
In his polo shirt, shorts, and gym shoes, the tall, 54-year-old Holton looks more like a writer than a cop. The walls of his living room in South Chicago are lined with framed dust jackets; tables are decorated with ceramic figures of a buffalo soldier and a Tuskegee airman, made by his daughter. The manuscript for a collection of nonfiction by black cops, which he's editing for Forge, sits on his kitchen table, along with a box from Dunkin' Donuts. "Cops always have donuts," he jokes.
The only son of a police officer, Hubert Holton grew up in Woodlawn, a safe community filled with ambitious students and attractions like the Tivoli theater. In those days gangbangers weren't killers, just juvenile delinquents. "I could walk from my home to the lake without experiencing any problems at all." He attended nearby Saint Anselm elementary school and Mount Carmel high school, which in the early 60s was just being integrated. "I don't remember being treated any different than anyone else," he says. "One of the things I think that I learned at Carmel was a kind of stick-to-itiveness that my father had also instilled in me. I made a pact with myself when I set out to start writing that I might not publish a book, but if I start the book I'm going to finish the book. Don't give up."
His father, a native of Louise, Mississippi, had served as a military policeman during World War II before moving to Chicago to help his own father run a grocery store near 43rd and Champlain. He married a Chicago girl whose brother had served in his company during the war, and after his father died he ran the store for seven more years. But in 1956 competition from chain stores shut him down, and he joined the police department. Holton's father served on the force for 33 years, including three as commander of detectives for Area Two. A piece he wrote is part of the collection Holton is now editing.
At Mount Carmel, Holton became the third black player on the football team, the Caravan. His name was shortened to Hugh during a practice at Jackson Park. "What's your name?" an assistant coach asked him. "It's Hubert," Holton replied. "That's as bad as my name," said the coach. "It's Clarence. From now on, I'm calling you Hugh."
When he wasn't on the football field or working in a shoe store in Lake Meadows, he was reading detective novels from the school library--Mickey Spillane, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ian Fleming, Arthur Conan Doyle. "One of the things that I always noticed about the books was that police types were always portrayed as very stupid individuals. My father is now, as he was then, one of the smartest people I ever met. I was saying, 'How in the world are they doing this? Why are they making these officers look so stupid?' Now I've met stupid cops, but there are a lot of smart people wearing that uniform, and working as detectives and other positions in the Chicago Police Department."
Fleming remains one of Holton's favorites; he once paid $100 for a hardcover edition of the first James Bond novel, On Her Majesty's Secret Service. He still marvels at the book's opening. "You have this idyllic scene described. It's September at the beach on one of the last good days of the year. You have the children playing, you have the Ferris wheel going, you have the loudspeaker. At the end of this long thing, he mentions James Bond. It changes the entire thing. It moves me. That's good writing. I want to do that."
In July 1964, Holton joined the police department's cadet program, which had been launched by superintendent O.W. Wilson to encourage young college students to join the force. Cadets worked in administrative positions, wearing a modified uniform, and Holton divided his time between Loop College (now Harold Washington College) and the Wentworth station, then located at 48th and Wabash. Two years later he enlisted in the army for a three-year tour of duty, including a seven-month stint in Vietnam. By March 1969 he'd returned to Chicago and joined the police academy. Those were the days of the Black Power movement, and tension between blacks and the police was escalating, but Holton had no regrets about his decision to become a cop. "My feeling was that I could do a lot more good inside that police department than outside," he says. "Black people needed police officers, maybe more so than other communities." Since high school he'd never really wanted to do anything else.
He was one of the first black officers to work in Wrigleyville, but after a district commander bluntly told him, "I don't need any colored tactical officers in my district," he transferred to Wentworth. Within six months he'd moved up to plainclothes, the first in a series of promotions. By 1975 he was a patrol sergeant; by 1984, a lieutenant. He's served as acting director of the beat representative program (a forerunner of CAPS), commander of the Gresham District, director of the department's personnel division, and commander of the Grand Crossing District. At the same time he completed his bachelor's degree, earned a graduate degree in history at Roosevelt University, and attended the Traffic Institute at Northwestern University.
But as he was moving up in the department, he began to get interested in writing. He enrolled in the writing program at Columbia College and the summer program of the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. He devoured Robert Ludlum's novels and pored over copies of Writer's Digest after his mother bought him a subscription. In 1986 he attended a conference at Northwestern sponsored by the midwest chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and two years later he signed up for a course at the Glencoe library taught by mystery author Barbara D'Amato. The night the class started he was worn out after a day on the job, but he went anyway. D'Amato explained the different types of mysteries: traditional, amateur sleuth, private investigator, police procedural. Holton was hooked. He wrote a police procedural, "Incident in Berlin," about a detective who suspects that Chancellor Hitler is a serial killer. D'Amato suggested that he try to publish the story, and he placed it in the now-defunct pulp magazine Detective Story.
D'Amato and Holton kept in touch after the course ended, and she urged him to try a novel. Violent Crimes is told from the perspective of Larry Cole, a young police officer at the start of his career. Like his creator, Larry Cole is a tall black man who played football at Mount Carmel and advanced rapidly in the department. Holton wanted his characters to be integrated, so he gave Cole an older and wiser Italian-American partner named Blackie Silvestri. The novel adapts a case from Holton's first year on the force, in which a rape victim refused to cooperate with police and was later raped again by the same man; the writer says it's the only time he's used an actual event from his police career.
D'Amato also introduced Holton to Ed Gorman, editorial director of the magazine Mystery Scene, and Holton agreed to contribute a monthly column on police procedure. "Cop's Corner" debuted in fall 1989 and ran for two years. By 1992, Holton had written three novels and gone through two agents. Some publishers complained that he mixed genres. One publisher asked him for a 75,000-word police procedural, and Holton wrote 100 pages of a gritty narrative involving gang members and drugs, but he hated the project and found the police procedural genre too restrictive. He ditched the project and began another novel, Presumed Dead. This time he caught fire.
"It was like I was let out of jail," he recalls. "It took me only six months to write. Everything pretty much came together after that....I'm a thriller writer, I'm not a police procedural writer. If I decide I want to drop in a little supernatural or voodoo in there, it's odd, but if it's in keeping with the tone of the story and I could suspend disbelief enough to do it, I'm going to do it. You can't do that in a down-and-dirty, nitty-gritty police procedural." And after a tough day on the job, the last thing he wants to do is relive it in his head. "Take a look at the arrests that I reviewed last night at the station: I had a forgery case; an armed robbery. I had a homicide in which a woman beat another woman to death with a hammer. A whole bunch of dope and a whole bunch of gangs from that State Street corridor. Any one of those or a group of those arrests could be made into a novel. But I'm letting my imagination have free rein."
Gorman suggested that he send his manuscripts to Susan Gleason, another agent, and after reading "Brain Trust" (which eventually became Windy City), she agreed to represent him. She shopped his manuscripts for nine months and eventually sold Windy City and Chicago Blues to her husband Robert, whom Holton had met at a mystery writers' conference in Toronto in 1991. Holton completed another novel, Presumed Dead, about a series of disappearances at an institution similar to the Museum of Science and Industry, and Forge, which found the story reminiscent of Stephen King, published the book in 1994. Windy City followed a year later and made the Chicago Tribune's bestseller list: in it Cole matches wits with Neil and Margo DeWitt, a rich and powerful couple who commit murders based on crimes from mystery novels.
Matt Rodriguez, at that time the police superintendent, approved Holton's second career in 1993 when the lieutenant signed his first contract with Forge. Yet shortly before Presumed Dead was published Rodriguez transferred Holton from his post as head of the Grand Crossing District to a watch commander's job at the Wentworth District. Reader columnist Michael Miner wrote about the incident, which had upset Grand Crossing residents as well as other writers, but Holton shrugs it off. "There was no real reason for that given, which is his prerogative. It's his staff. Coincidentally, Presumed Dead came out six days later. I have his signature saying it was OK to do it. If he didn't want me to do it, all he had to do was deny it. So I can't say that's the reason why. I never look back. I've been able to promote my books. I have not stopped writing."
The Left Hand of God, published last year, gives a good indication of how Holton combines real life with fantasy. The story begins in a black town in Mississippi, based on a real-life counterpart that was founded by Holton's great-grandfather. Three representatives of the Human Development Institute, a secret right-wing organization in Chicago, visit the town, hoping to destroy it, but two of them are killed by a monster that can change its shape. Years later the monster, taking the form of a beautiful woman, comes to Chicago to destroy the organization, but the lone survivor of the earlier attack, posing as a priest, is employed by the Institute as an assassin. Holton's book won a Readers' Choice award at the Love Is Murder conference in Schaumburg last February.
Many cops like his books; they're always asking Holton about the next one. During a recent retirement party, two officers argued over which of them was the real-life model for Cole's partner, Blackie Silvestri, and called Holton at work to settle the issue. Always the diplomat, he told them the character was a composite of their best traits. His experience on the force may be a selling point for his books, but for Holton the writing is less an outlet for his police work than a coping mechanism. "Even now," he says, "after 31 years on the police force, I still see things that amaze me."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.