Confessions of an Undercover Drug Warrior

By Charles Bowden

Harcourt. 309 pp. $24

Charles Bowden's A Shadow in the City is a journey into the mind of one veteran soldier in the war on drugs as he increasingly doubts his mission. For more than 20 years, Joey O'Shay has deceived people for a living. And he's been a master at his work.

O'Shay isn't his real name, and Bowden won't tell us the city where he works. He seems to be a local narcotics cop detailed to the feds. He started in his mid-twenties, kicking in doors on raids with his crew. On one bust, a man emerged from a bedroom with a .357, fired at O'Shay, and missed. O'Shay shot the man twice in the chest, killing him. The close call and the slaying of a man didn't deter O'Shay. He found himself riding the adrenaline rush, "this sense of being totally alert because in an instant you may be totally dead."

But shootouts aren't common in the drug war; most of the battles are psychological. That part of the job thrills O'Shay even more. His work initially consists mainly of getting addicts to reveal their sources: "He finds people who will do anything to get high and finds he gets high by finding them and using them." Moving up from addicts to petty dealers to suppliers of kilos from Mexico and Colombia, O'Shay eventually poses as a dealer himself. He doesn't participate in the actual busts, and often suppliers go to prison unaware that it was O'Shay who did them in.

Most undercover drug cops spend a year or two on the job before they've had enough, Bowden says. O'Shay stays at it, wearing out partners "like sets of tires." He can't quit. Obsession "is the ultimate addiction, the strongest drug because it gives the one thing other drugs never deliver. It gives meaning." He's sustained by the certainty that he is good and his prey are evil.

But as the years march on, O'Shay starts questioning that conviction. He comes to believe that the drug kingpins work much harder than his fellow narcs, that they're honest "in their own filthy way." And he can't help but realize that the drugs keep flowing in spite of his efforts.

Most of A Shadow in the City revolves around a deal involving millions of dollars worth of pure Colombian heroin. O'Shay develops an affection for the supplier, a Caribbean woman identified only as Gloria. His skillful efforts result in the seizure of a large cache of heroin -- and Gloria's arrest. One night, he begins to write down how he feels about the "intricate, filthy, disgusting maze" he concocted to snare her. "I have more respect for the drug dealers I took down than the majority of the bureaucracy I work around," he writes. "Tonight I will drink enough to numb the fact I have destroyed some other humans and most likely their innocent families."

The book's power is diminished by its total dependence on unnamed sources and pseudonyms for all the cops and all the dealers. In the drug-enforcement sphere, confidential informants are a necessary evil, but the secrecy allows for scamming, and the results must be viewed skeptically. Likewise in the world of journalism.

Bowden is a gifted writer, but his book can be hard going, with its disjointed, hallucinatory glimpses of O'Shay's parallel personae as cop, dealer, father and seeker of truth. And he strains at times in painting O'Shay as a maestro of narcs: "He can read a face in a glance, know a move before it happens. Sense what someone else will do before the thought crosses their mind." And leap tall buildings in a single bound?

A Shadow in the City is a condemnation of the drug war, with a top officer saying the point of the war eludes him. But it's also a fascinating personal story about a man whose search for meaning in his life makes him reject his life's work. *

Steve Bogira is the author of "Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse."