03 June 2009

"I Am Not a Cop!" by Richard Belzer with Michael Black

I Am Not a Cop!: A Novel
Richard Belzer with Michael Black
Date of Publication: 14 October 2008
Cover Price: $24.00
272 pages

Entertainment concepts seem to evolve over the course of a decade, and as the reality experiment has begun to yield the floor it appears that a hybrid sub-genre of "reality fiction" is emerging. In film, we've had My Name Is Bruce and in literature, I Am Not a Cop! Richard Belzer has crafted a fictitious tale in which he, as himself, is caught up in a mystery involving a missing medical examiner friend who happens to be Russian. (Or is he Ukrainian?)

Fans of The Belz know from his stand-up routine and previous work of non-fiction (UFO's, JFK, and Elvis: Conspiracies You Don't Have to Be Crazy to Believe) that this is a guy who does his homework when it comes to intricate plots, and he has spun a doozy here. Elements of the plot draw heavily from the history and politics of Russia and the former Soviet states; you don't need to do your own homework, though, because Belzer has made sure that all the information you need to know is presented in an accessible manner throughout this novel.

I have long been an avid, yet admittedly slow, reader and so it is rare that I read anything cover-to-cover in one setting; I Am Not a Cop! has earned a spot on that short list. Despite Belzer's years of portraying television's most ubiquitous character, Detective John Munch, I Am Not a Cop! is much more a literary descendant of crime noir novels. Not only does Belzer admit as much in his epilogue, but there are frequent references to (and quotes from) them sprinkled throughout the narrative. From start to finish, though, the sarcastic wit of Belzer permeates I Am Not a Cop! and I found myself easily envisioning him in character during many passages.

At 272 pages, this is a novel that harkens back to the days of page-turning paperback thrillers meant to be read during a train commute; the kind that Ian Fleming insisted his James Bond stories were. Despite--or perhaps, because of--this, there is one chief complaint I would register with the author. All too often, a turn of phrase is recycled to the point that it becomes distracting. The most glaring culprit is a variation of, "[famous person] would be proud." Saying that these moments took me "out of the book" would be taking it too far--especially given the nature of its premise. Still, they're the kind of thing that one expects an editor to catch and ask the author, "Can we phrase this differently? You used the same expression thirteen pages ago."

Fans of the series in which "Detective Munch" has appeared should not expect any name-dropping or behind-the-scenes glimpses into their production. Despite the fact that Belzer's investigation occurs during an eight day shoot, the actual series and its elements are ambiguous. The only direct allusions are to Mariska Hargitay, in both of which the promise of an autographed photo of her is bartered for cooperation.

While I Am Not a Cop! may not be the definitive mystery story of our times, it is fun throughout and sustained by its plot, steeped as it is in real life situations. I cannot guage how a reader unfamiliar with Belzer would enjoy this novel; many of his personality traits and views can be alienating at times (for instance, in 2008, was it really necessary to have five different lines to remind us that he dislikes George W. Bush?). An audiobook reading would be welcomed, though one has not been issued to date.

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