Peter Maas The Times Literary Supplement

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The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is a pity that Frank Serpico did not write his own story. No doubt if he had it would have lacked the professional skill with which Peter Maas has composed [Serpico], by means of graphic scenes, flash-back technique and the adept use of research and inquiry. But there is something so utterly individual about Serpico's commitment that the reader longs for his voice. It is nevertheless only fair to say that Mr Maas has done his best to let us hear it as often as possible and that the best things in the book are those in which Serpico's personal testimony is most evident.

Paradox appears from the outset. Here was a young man whose heart's desire was to be a police officer in the American style, a crack shot and karate adept, his childhood hero the neighbourhood patrolman: yet once in the force he adopted a bohemian style far from the conventions of police appearance and behaviour. This Greenwich-Village association undoubtedly reduced his credibility when he sought to report his fellow-officers' systematic extortion. Most "ranking" officers inevitably saw him as a crank; the peer-group's norm was not for him, thus giving rise to an aura of suspicion of his whole manner of being.

When he was posted to plainclothes duty his real troubles began. The main business of the branch to which he was posted was to prevent gambling. To this well-known impossibility the plainclothesmen had accommodated themselves by regulating the bookmakers and the "policy" operators for their own advantage. When Serpico joined his precinct he discovered that he was expected to receive $800 a month from funds collected in an extremely business-like way from the people who ran gambling concerns. The incidental turpitude and humiliation he encountered aroused at first a determination to do his duty impartially and to keep out of the web of corruption. This was soon replaced by a determination to do his duty by bringing to justice all criminals who crossed his path, especially if they were wearing police uniform.

His attempts to bring the situation to the notice of the hierarchs of the police department make sorry reading. Their several failures may in part be attributed to the odd-man-out impression he made; in part, lamentably, to inefficiency and to more sinister causes; but they must probably be largely blamed upon the innate desire of all administrators in large organizations to avoid the boat being rocked.

What is more respectable than an ancient abuse? Serpico's answer to that question was the same as Voltaire's. Mr Maas makes it clear that he was not altogether without allies. There were senior officers of police who gave him help and friendship, and there was the voluble and polemically-minded detective sergeant, David Durk, whose behind-the-scenes acquaintanceships enabled Serpico to contact levels near the commissioner and the mayor and finally to approach...

(The entire section is 710 words.)