Peter Maas Tom Geoghegan

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Tom Geoghegan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Pulp culture leans hard on cop books and mafia books, and now … the paperbacks have a new vein to work—the cops as the mafia. Such is the stuff of Serpico, which is slick bestseller melodrama in the true-to-life style of "the cop who defied the system," but a real guy, too, hip to things like the Village Voice and karate. Serpico … wears love-beads off duty, packs a Browning automatic, has a supermarksman rating, chops through doors and has his choice of "women who would drive readers of Playboy into a frenzy."

Despite the movie-like fanfare, Peter Maas seems finally to have one big innocent on his hands—one of the most naive or self-destructive of the "good cops," willing to finger his pals, at first in private to superiors, then to the DA, then The New York Times, then go on public record to put cops in jail even at some risk to his life….

In the slang of the force, cops on the take are either "grass-eaters" or "meat-eaters." The "meat-eaters," like many of Serpico's partners, have a take that exceeds their own salaries, which may be either "clean money" coming from numbers and prostitution or "dirty money" from narcotics. The historic line between clean and dirty money, Serpico and Maas believe, is no longer respected, but Frank Serpico is mighty prim about enforcing the laws against both. Some of the other cops, though, were no slouches either, as they hunted down gamblers to get themselves on the payroll. There has always been a nutty notion that cops are latent criminals, anyway. The new wisdom of social science is that they are time-servers like everyone else in government, wedded to their paperwork and their little quotas. As a result of their bad press they are even more conscious than most bureaucrats of being on sufferance in the community, even the law and order part of the community, and so are intensely loyal to each other. Serpico is such an oddity that it may be hard for him to feel what the average-cop-with-a-family wants from the force. A cop, he feels, should be a social worker, not a bureaucrat, though it is significant his own consuming ambition is to bust out of patrol work and make detective….

All Serpico really knows about these other cops is that they have families, but one suspects they are scratching to make it into white suburbanhood. It is these insecure climbers that are sent down to patrol cesspools as bad as those of any civilized country—like the South Bronx, one of Serpico's first assignments. Or if not to police the poor they are dispatched to the affluent parts of Manhattan where they must feel like paid servants of the rich, patrolling "communities" where they could not possibly afford to live themselves. Either way they are mercenaries in a foreign country. (p. 27)

The system Serpico defied was not the corruption of his fellows but the indifference of the police...

(The entire section is 754 words.)