When Gothamist read Stacy Horn's book about the NYPD's Cold Case Squad, The Restless Sleep, we had to find out what it was like to go into the world of the police detectives trying to solve decades-old murders.
Writer, and I run a very retro online service called Echo.
How did you become inspired to contact the Cold Case Squad and write a book, The Restless Sleep, about them?
You know, I've never been drawn to true crime or cop books, but I had to explore this world of the forgotten. The forgotten dead, actually. Then I started hanging out with detectives. I felt like I had been dropped into another world. The NYPD is another planet. But a very interesting planet. (Plus, I imagined old storehouses filled with a least 100 years of dusty, aging, evidence and I just had to get in to see them.)
What surprised you about the police detectives?
Before 9/11 and this book I never met a cop or detective. I didn't quite know what to make of them. And I wasn't entirely sure they're on our side. (Like right now, what is their problem with bicycles??) But they turned out to be like the guys I grew up with on Long Island. With guns.
And they were better at things that I thought I was good at. Like interviewing people and getting them to talk.
You did a lot of research for the book, and the Restless Sleep also seems like a useful history of the NYPD. What do you think of the way the NYPD is structured now?
The NYPD culture is set in stone and I don't see that changing for a long time for a number of reasons. Change is hard and slow, even when you want it, and it would take many different mayors appointing many different police commissioners and more money than they will ever get, and hired as many scientists, for instance, as former high school football players (hi, Steve). That said, the Counter Terrorism Bureau looks impressive from a distance. And I'd love to see their new high tech command center, because one, high tech command center! And two, it was astounding to me to learn what information cops and detectives DIDN'T have easy access to. The information was there, but they sometimes had to wait days and weeks to get it.
Which cold case was most surprising/emotional/shocking experience for you?
When you look closely at the details of any murder, in every case, no exceptions, you're left wondering in horror, "What the f**k?" Like, who stomps a little girl to death? I'm talking about Christine Diefenbach, one of the murder victims I wrote about. She must have been screaming and crying the whole time. It reminds me of the soldiers who bayoneted the daughters and son (and dog) of the last Russian Tsar at the turn of the last century. It wasn't a quick death, but somehow there are people in this world who have it in them to take the time and finish the job. Of killing little girls. And there are women in this world who will hold the mouths of little kids while their boyfriends murder their parents, and then go buy Christmas presents for their own children with the money they stole from the murder victims (another case I wrote about).
What was the most interesting case you wrote about?
The 1951 case obsessed me because I identified the most with the victim, a 26 year old woman from Alabama, who was just trying to put her life together and have fun. I also became obsessed with learning and comparing 1951 forensics and science with how things are done now.
Could you imagine being a cold case detective?
NO. Before this book I would have thought, "How fun it must be to be a detective!" And it has its fun side, but at a price. Whenever reporters and writers go on ride-alongs with cops they make it sound so fun and exciting. It's terrifying. I don't want to be the guy in a bullet-proof vest walking into danger. I was the girl cowering in a hallway trying to figure out which route the bad guys wouldn't take. Plus, getting back to murderers and other bad guys and their friends, they tend to be stupid and repellent and who wants to not only spend lots and lots of time with them, but by necessity, become intimate with them? Then there's the frustration that comes with working for any large bureaucracy and I said goodbye to that many years ago (I once worked in corporate America). What am I forgetting? Oh yeah. Lots of people hate you. The whole world watches your every move and comments about it publicly.
It was a thousand billion times more fun for me to get to know them, hang out with them, and research what they do, which was never boring to me for a SECOND. It was entrancing. I still miss it, and them. I love them, but I couldn't be them. I wish they had a job like in-house historian. God would that be fun. If you only knew what they had in the basement over at One Police Plaza. For instance, they've been making and saving movies for as long as we've had movie cameras. There's a locked room of glass plate negatives of crime scenes beginning around 1910, I think it was.
In spite of my wuss-nature, every single cop and detective who read my book said I got them and the NYPD exactly right. I'd be a good NYPD in-house historian.
In terms of jobs that actually exist, I'd rather be a CSI-type guy. Or work at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
You've also written a book, Waiting For My Cats to Die: A Morbid Memoir, which, in a nutshell for our readers, is your take on death, growing older, love, having diabetic cats, and life. Do you think New York City is a better place to contemplate those things than, say, rural Nebraska - and why?
New York is the best place for the morbid. Bottomline, for me, life = New York City. I've lived elsewhere, and loved every place I've tried (Boston, Ohio, Florida) but it's the old cliche, life is hard, then you die. New Yorkers know it, embrace it, and cherish the same things I cherish along the way. Right now it's the perfect cupcake, which is at The Cupcake Cafe. Or the recent performance of Mark Morris's L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, which I didn't get to see because it was sold out and you gotta be quick in NYC. Damnit.
And you started Echo, one of the first online communities, in 1990. What are some facets of the Internet that you love today?
Blogs. I love blogs. If someone is interesting and they can write, or take great pictures, I love that contact-at-will. Except there aren't enough great TV blogs out there. I love TV and I want to hear someone smart and funny talk about what I've just seen. Where is the Gothamist or Dooce of TV?? Television Without Pity is great, but we don't watch enough of the same shows.
Questions about you and NY:
Favorite subway line: The 1. I'm a west side girl. I take it up to Harlem, where I'm researching a ghost story, back down to Lincoln Center, and then down to the bottom of the island, where I love to go because there are still spots where you feel like you've gone back in time.
Best back-in-time spot:
Hanover Square, downtown.
Law & Order or CSI:
CSI all the way for me.
Better headlines - NY Post or Daily News:
Best place for a slice of pizza:
Lucca Pizza. 535 Hudson Street and Charles.
Best and worst examples of neighborhood gentrification:
The best is what they've done along the Hudson River downtown (except I miss some of the squalor and decay and I hate the highrises). The worst is Times Square. It doesn't look like New York anymore.
Favorite pet store:
The ones with animals in them so I can torture myself looking at all the dogs and cats I can't have. Then Whiskers, on 235 E. 9th Street, for the most knowledgeable staff and the best variety of just about everything. Honorable mention, Beasty Feast on Hudson Street and Jane.
Stacy Horn also has a blog for The Restless Sleep, which includes some great NYPD history and trivia. She also has more information about Waiting for My Cats to die here, and has a personal blog as well.