In The Policewomen’s Bureau (Arcade, May), former NYPD detective Conlon fictionalizes the story of Marie Cirile, who joined the NYPD in 1957 and worked there for 20 years.
How did you come to write about Marie Cirile?
A friend, Bonnie Timmerman, a casting agent and producer, asked me if I knew any great stories about women police officers. I told her about Marie, whose story—pioneering at work, a victim of domestic violence at home—had dramatic potential. I tracked Marie down in Florida. We had a couple of meetings with Bonnie, but nothing panned out. Getting to know Marie made me think more about her, though, and after my novel, Red on Red, came out in 2011, I decided to revisit Marie’s story. We worked together for almost a year before her death in 2011.
Your author’s note states that Marie told you to invent anything that might improve the story. What did you feel needed improving?
There’s only one section of the book that’s pure fiction. Most of Marie’s cases were short-term stings and street arrests. Women weren’t assigned to the main detective squads, such as homicide or robbery, so there wasn’t a single case that would carry her through the book. I wanted to have her play a lead role in a complex investigation at a time when women were excluded from doing exactly that.
How did you research the book?
Archival material, talks with cops I knew who worked in the ’60s and ’70s. My questions had to with historical detail, often about procedure. Could they get paid cash overtime? How long did a female police officer get for maternity leave? When did cops first get hand-held radios?
Was there anything unexpected about what you learned about New York cops during Marie’s time on the force?
When I asked Marie if the department gave them unmarked cars in the late ’50s, she laughed and told me that she had to drive her own car at work. When I asked what she drove, she told me that she had a Pontiac Tempest. After a few seconds of Googling, I told her that the Tempest didn’t come out until 1961. And then she remembered: “It was a Renault Dauphin. I won it on a game show.” I didn’t care about the car anymore. The head of the Policewomen’s Bureau had a number of her officers appear on game shows, for the publicity. There was a scandal at the time—the producers were feeding the answers to the contestants they wanted to win. That went into the book.