Breaking Blue

On TV and in the movies, crooked cops are as common as cockroaches. Nonfiction crime books, on the other hand, normally portray police officers as dogged heroes of spotless virtue — crosses between Lieutenant Columbo and St. Ignatius Loyola. Partly it’s a matter of gratitude. Authors tend to flatter their sources. Then too, convicted murderers won’t often sue for libel, while insulted investigators certainly might. But the greatest obstacle to realistic accounts of police work is what Timothy Egan calls the ”blue wall” — the code of silence cops observe toward everybody except members of the brotherhood.

Breaking Blue is a crisply written exception to the rule — the account of a sheriff in a remote county along the Canadian border in eastern Washington tracking down clues to an unsolved 54-year-old homicide. Sheriff Tony Bamonte, the amply flawed hero of this nonfiction tale, came across the story of the 1935 slaying of Marshal George Coniff while researching his master’s thesis at Spokane’s Gonzaga University. A Vietnam vet and former motorcycle cop with a chip on his shoulder roughly the size of the Grand Coulee Dam, Bamonte ended up pursuing a sickly 90-year-old suspect until the old man died. Opinions in Spokane as to the wisdom and justice of his quest remain, as they say, hotly divided. As Egan tells it, many had more sympathy for the aged killer than for his pursuer.

Possibly that’s because it’s a rare soul who has never fantasized about getting away with murder. Mostly, however, it seems to have been because the deeper Bamonte dug into the past the clearer it became that the murderer was a former Spokane detective whose pals on the force had covered for him. Even a half century later, the Spokane PD claimed it could find no record that the suspect, Det. Clyde Ralstin, had ever been on the force. ”Bamonte was on a self-serving, an irresponsible crusade, (Ralstin’s supporters) charged — a sentiment echoed by top brass in the Spokane Police Department. ‘Don’t you have anything better to do?’ one officer in Spokane asked Bamonte.”

Egan portrays a man who needed to distract himself from bitter memories of his own parents — an uncommunicative brute of a father and a promiscuous mother — as well as from his own failing marriage and troubled relationship with his son. Bamonte turned to the past, to a Depression-era burglary that went tragically wrong and to a slain lawman whose own children, now approaching 70, had never gotten justice. As in the movies, the investigation soon pointed to other suspicious deaths. Before he finished, the sheriff found himself daydreaming of a physical confrontation with the swaggering bully his aged suspect was in 1935 — even developing a bit of a crush on an 85-year-old witness who gave him a snapshot of herself at 29.

While the mystery itself hardly plumbs the depths of the human soul, Egan — Seattle bureau chief of The New York Times — gives readers a brisk narrative of Bamonte’s unlikely quest, shifting deftly back and forth between 1935 and 1989, and providing along the way vivid glimpses of the rapidly changing American West. A superior job of reporting. B+

Breaking Blue
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