Follow the moneyJudith Smith-Levin's characters wade through the crimson to find the green
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:21 PM
"When author Judith Smith-Levin says she has made a new friend, she really means it - the author's characters are her companions. Old friends and new inhabit Green Money, the third of Smith-Levin's police procedural/romantic mysteries. I love my characters, Smith-Levin says. They hang out with me, but I'm not in charge. They do what they do. In the latest book, the torching of a homeless woman is prelude to a series of creatively gruesome murders that homicide lieutenant Starletta Duvall and Sergeant Dominic Paresi must solve. Smith-Levin cites protagonist Star and love interest Mitchell Grant doing the deed - despite her preference that they flirt - as evidence that her characters have minds of their own. Of course the author wrote them into bed, but Smith-Levin makes the point that the internal logic of character development overrode her original intent. That her characters come to life is a tribute both to her writing skill and to the authenticity of material derived from Smith-Levin's own life. Smith-Levin was a police officer for five years. She took the patrolman's exam and physical on a dare, scoring fourth highest in the state of Massachusetts. Smith-Levin became the city of Worcester's first woman police officer.But black, female police officers could expect little support from the force in the early 1970s. On her first night in uniform, another officer, pretending to clean his loaded gun, pointed the barrel at the back of her head while onlooking officers snickered. Smith-Levin stayed on the job. Many of the men who had once harassed Smith-Levin became her buddies. The friendships have endured, and those officers also people her novels. As the years on the job passed and the body count rose, Smith-Levin found herself growing detached. I didn't like people very much any more, she admits. It was time to go.Writing her first mystery, Do Not Go Gently, in which Star Duvall catches a serial murderer, helped Smith-Levin begin to work through the cumulative trauma of police work. In a second book, Hoodoo Man, the author wrote about voodoo murder, while developing the relationships among the cast of characters. Turning to fiction was an instinctive move for Smith-Levin, who wrote her first book at 13. Even as a young child growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Smith-Levin knew she would be a writer. Her mother encouraged her. When confronted by a math teacher's accusation that Smith-Levin was writing stories in class, her mother replied, Some people do math; some people write stories. At 14, Smith-Levin ran copy for the Chicago Defender, the country's oldest black-owned newspaper. By the time she was 16, she had her own column and byline. Smith-Levin's police career grew out of articles she wrote for the Worcester Evening Gazette; it was when she complained in print about the lack of black police officers that a police captain dared her to apply.Three books into her writing career, Smith-Levin still draws on the years of police work for inspiration. Star, Paresi, Mitch - and the whole colorful crew of officers and offenders - are introduced as her friends. They take readers for a wild and gory ride on city streets, past drug dealers, pimps, hookers and hoodlums - chasing murderers from every walk of life.Smith-Levin didn't foresee that her gritty experiences would become books, but she believed, even in police work's bleak moments, that something positive would result.Nothing that happens to us is wasted, Smith-Levin says. We use it all. * * * * *Judith Smith-Levin will read from Green Money at Eagle Harbor Books, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 30. For information, call 842-5332. "