Origins of Crime & Justice in James Patterson’s Washington DC

by David Silon

While walking around our nation’s capital, I often wondered about its story. When I ask the average American what comes to mind when I mention the word “Washington DC,” almost without fail, they think “politics,” and not much else. But is this altogether true? Is this town just politics or is it also a community of families like any other metropolitan area in the United States with its own positive and negative sides? Does it have a history like New York or Philadelphia or New Orleans? To be quite honest, it’s all of the above.

Also consider the fact that, beginning around 1980, recession, unemployment and just general neighborhood neglect, began to take its toll, and this led to a rising crime rate. At one time, crime was so bad here that this city was dubbed “the homicide capital of the United States.” In this tumultuous atmosphere, author James Patterson set his crime stories. A native of Newburgh NY, about 60 miles north of New York City, Patterson’s stories became best sellers, and they featured villains so ghastly, they would make Hannibal Lecter seem saintly in comparison.

In the midst of all this was the star of the show, a black gentleman, a detective and psychologist by the name of Alex Cross, who has resided on 5th Street for many years in DC’s Southeast Quadrant, a largely African-American neighborhood. Traveling north to the Northeast Quadrant, I noticed, on the corner of 12th and Monroe, a Catholic Church, Saint Anthony’s Parish, where Patterson had his hero volunteer his time to give back to the community. Well, actually, this isn’t the church in the Alex Cross stories at all. Cross’ church is located in his own neighborhood, but it was probably based on this church in the Northeast.

While traveling along Indiana Ave. in the Northwest, I came across the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia, the MPD. This is a massive complex of buildings scattered throughout the District and it was in its branches in the Southeast, in its homicide division, that Alex Cross worked, solving the most gruesome crimes of the day.

The MPD’s origins go back many years and it was also intimately bound up in the era of slavery. When, what we now know as the District first took shape, Maryland and Virginia appointed constables to patrol the city. In 1802, this system was changed and the city appointed a Captain of the Watch and 15 watchmen. But during the years approaching the Civil War, life was tense. Neighboring Virginia was a slave state and with the Compromise of 1850, the slave trade became outlawed in the District.

Virginians saw this as a threat to their slave economy as Washington was traditionally a transit point for slaves going to the south. On the District’s side, there were fears of invasion by pro-slavery forces. When the Civil War broke out, Confederate armies were just over the river. Under such circumstances, the security of the District had to be assured, and under the authority of President Lincoln, on August 6, 1861, the modern-day Metropolitan Police Department became officially organized. The next year, slavery in the District was outlawed nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation. Accordingly, a migration of freed blacks, and much later, of former and escaped slaves occurred. In time, they began to predominate mainly in the Southeast.

After his work at the Metropolitan Police, Cross moved over to the FBI where he became a senior agent. FBI headquarters, located on Pennsylvania Ave. in the Northwest Quadrant, has become a byword for law enforcement for well over a century. In 1886, there were attempts of individual states, most notably Illinois, to regulate interstate commerce. This was deemed illegal by the Supreme Court in the case that became known as Wabash, St. Louis and Pacific Railway Company v. Illinois. This resulted in the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 which stated that only the Federal Government had the authority to regulate interstate commerce.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department had suffered from a severe staff shortage of law enforcement investigators but made little effort to rectify the situation until Attorney General Charles Bonaparte sought help from other agencies, such as the Secret Service. Assistance was also sought from the Treasury Department, but in 1908, Congress passed a law preventing any contact between the two departments. In reaction, the Attorney General decided to take matters into his own hands and organize the independent Bureau of Investigation on July 26 of that year.

12 special agents were provided by the Justice Dept., thus becoming America’s first ever agents of, what would later become, the FBI. Their duties and responsibilities fell according to the decisions of the Interstate Commerce Act and their first official operation took place in 1910. By 1932, the BOI became the United States Bureau of Investigation. The following year it was linked to the Bureau of Prohibition and renamed, the Division of Investigation. In 1935, it became an independent section of the Justice Department, officially changing its name to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the FBI.

Traveling along Massachusetts Ave. in the Northwest is Union Station which is prominently featured in Patterson’s book Cat and Mouse. This was where one of Cross’ nemeses Gary Soneji, a teacher turned psychopath, would stay for brief periods of time.

He knew everything there was to know about the famous train gateway for the capital. He had long admired the neoclassical facade that recalled the famed Baths of Caracalla in ancient Rome. He had studied the station’s architecture for hours as a young boy. He had even visited the Great Train Store, which sold exquisite model trains and other railroad-themed souvenirs. Long streaks and spears of morning sunlight shafted down through delicate skylights. They reflected off the walls and the high gilded ceiling. The main hall before him held an information booth, a magnificent electronic train arrival-and-departure board, the Center Cafe, Sfuzzi, and America restaurants.

Also located on Massachusetts Ave. and featured prominently in Patterson’s book Pop Goes the Weasel, is the British Embassy. Weasel centers on one Geoffrey Shafer aka the Weasel. He was a Colonel in the British Army, later to receive a position in the MI6 Intelligence Service, finally becoming a diplomat in the Embassy. As diplomat, he was accused of the murder of Detective Patsy Hampton. Waiving diplomatic immunity, he stood trial for the murder in a sensationalist atmosphere. Later, of course, he encountered Alex Cross.

Such is life of DC according to James Patterson. His criminals have ranged from dangerous psychopaths to cold-blooded murderers and in the midst of all this stood the hero, the cool, calm and collected Alex Cross. Probably summing up the dangerous people that Cross has had to contend with, I take a quote from the Patterson book The Angel Experiment:

“Yes,” said Fang, punching the air. “Freaks rule.”

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