On the Jersey Beat: A Crime Reporter-Turned-Novelist

Crime reporter turned novelist Brad Parks tackles real-world issues.

Brad Parks
Brad Parks at a recent book signing at Words in Maplewood.The author spent a decade as a crime reporter in Newark.
Courtesy of the publisher.

You can take the writer out of New Jersey, but if you read the mystery novels of Brad Parks, it becomes clear that it is hard to take Jersey out of the writer.

His latest novel, The Good Cop, concerns a fictitious Newark crime reporter named Carter Ross (the protagonist in all four Parks novels to date) who is assigned to investigate the apparent suicide of a Newark policeman. Ross immediately becomes suspicious, sure that a cop who loves his family—including two young children—and his job, and has so much to live for, would not suddenly off himself.

Parks, who spent 10 years as a crime reporter at the Star-Ledger and now lives in Virginia, uses the book to illuminate the problem of police corruption. He also delves into the issue of gun smuggling. In fact, each of Parks’s novels focuses on a complex and pressing social matter.

In a recent conversation, Parks provided a primer on his previous work. “The first book was about drugs. The second book was about subprime mortgages and all the real estate craziness. The third gets into organized labor.” Each book is set in the Garden State, and conveys a gritty, Jersey feel—even though Parks hasn’t lived or worked in the state for a while.

In writing about gun smuggling, Parks takes into account New Jersey’s gun laws, which rank alongside Illinois and New York as the toughest in the country. He told me about an incident that occurred at a gun store in Virginia. “I asked the guy at the counter, ‘What are the gun laws here?’ And he’s like, ‘Boy, you in Virginia now!’ Forget 30-day waiting period; they don’t even have a 15-minute waiting period. As long as you’re not a felon and are tall enough to get the money up on the counter, you’re out the door with a gun.”

Parks weaves this anecdote into The Good Cop as he lays out how smugglers legally buy their guns in the South, scratch off the serial numbers, hop on Route 95—the so-called iron pipeline—and sell the goods just a few hours later in cities like Camden, Paterson and Newark. Given our state’s strict gun laws, the pipeline is inevitable. The 30-day waiting period is a matter of fact, and, Parks points out, New Jersey applicants for a gun permit “must undergo a background check and an interview by their local police department. The law enforcement officer has broad latitude to reject the application for a list of reasons that is far longer than what the federal government imposes. ”

In Parks’s writing, it is hard to tell where reality ends and fiction begins. His Jersey characters and scenes are instantly recognizable—one reason his novels strongly appeal to Jersey readers.

So is Carter Ross really Brad Parks? The answer is complicated. Parks explains that in the beginning he drew his plots directly from his experiences as a Newark crime reporter. In time, he says, the character became more “aspirational”—turning Carter Ross into the investigative crime reporter Parks wishes he might have been.

As for the Garden State as backdrop, that’s simple. “There’s an energy to New Jersey,” Parks says. “There’s vibrancy. There’s a character. Every town in New Jersey has its own feel to it. Every section of Newark has its own feel. I really came to appreciate that. Also, New Jersey has unique things about it…. We have every ethnicity, every religion, every ethnic mob—which is good for a crime fiction writer. And because we’re the densest state in the union, all of those people can’t help but mash into each other all the time.”

Ultimately, New Jersey churns up an endless stream of potential yarns revolving around crime, corruption and bad guys. Parks’s upcoming fifth novel will focus on toxic waste and the mob. It’s a storyline that sounds all too real.

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