THE CORPSE HAD A FAMILIAR FACE
America's Hottest Beat
By Edna Buchanan
Random House. 275 pp. $17.95
If John D. MacDonald had preferred nonfiction, he might have written the story of Edna Buchanan. The only problem would have been that MacDonald liked to unearth one body, or maybe three at most; for Buchanan there have been 5,000.
Edna Buchanan, who has been on The Miami Herald police beat for 15 years, is that rare journalist who loves covering violence, cares about every corpse and doesn't want to be promoted out of a job that most reporters prefer to do briefly, if at all, on their way up.
She won a Pulitzer last year for the body, or bodies, of her work, and earned an even more coveted prize: She was the subject of an adoring profile in The New Yorker by Calvin Trillin. Said Trillin: "In Miami, a few figures are regularly discussed by first name among people they have never actually met. One of them is Fidel. Another is Edna."
I talked to her when she won the Pulitzer, and she said The New Yorker story made her feel strange, as if she had looked in a mirror and found that Calvin Trillin had stolen her reflection. She knew it was a positive profile, she said, but it still made her feel somehow violated.
If it seemed an odd reaction for a journalist, her book reveals that she is in some ways an odd person, but also an extraordinary one. In a nation where people are racing to have look-alike lives, Edna Buchanan rushes through her daily battles with corpses and deadlines as an eccentric whose eccentricities have been mostly nurtured, encouraged and forgiven in the strange society that is Miami.
Her book is full of Buchananisms that undoubtedly will be quoted around her home town for years. Among them: "My favorite sound in the world is a kitten's purr." Or, "Today's hero is often the man caught with his hand in the cookie jar tomorrow." "Crooks can captivate you if you drop your guard ... The charm is what undoes them -- it makes it possible for them to get into big trouble without being stopped sooner." "A corpse has no privacy." "Sex gets people into so much trouble it's a wonder more of them don't give it up."
One of her most famous comments, already part of her lore, is that the demure police reporter once called her life in Miami "interesting as heck."
There is an eerie fascination in her own eerie fascination with murder. "Unsolved murders are unfinished stories," she explains early in the book. "I feel haunted by the restless souls of those whose killers walk free. Somebody owes them ... Detectives divert their energies to new cases with hot leads. It is only natural. But I can't forget."
In most American cities, when people disagree they file a lawsuit. In Miami, they draw a gun. To carry those souls around with you as you try to work and live would be more than most people could bear. But Edna Buchanan has found her life's purpose in this. It is a marriage of a city, a woman and a newspaper, and it works.
As an ex-Floridian who moved north, I have trouble understanding Buchanan's love affair with the Sunshine State. She describes with joy one of the tortures of a Florida summer when she says at one point: "I even love the giddy, near-dizziness that almost overwhelms you as you slide into a car that has been baking in the mid-day midsummer sun."
What makes it more understandable is a childhood in New Jersey that puts life's later obsessions into some perspective. Her grandfather was a drinker: "He would toss down a few boilermakers and it was monster movie time." Her father hung out with people called "Jimmy the Rabbit" and "One-Armed Eddie," and when her mother left him and tried to get child support, the family never heard from him again.
School was an ordeal. "As a child, I dreaded Sunday night because Monday morning meant school. I have never dreaded anything as much since. Covering murder, rapes, and riots is a breeze by comparison."
She read stories, spent her nickels on the New York Daily News instead of candy and could not go to college because there was no money and no time.
Her love life was less than perfect. Husband No. 1 was also named Buchanan. "He was my Pearl Harbor." Then there was the detective. "The marriage was a good one for almost twenty-four hours," she writes.
Her solution? "I know a few judges now," she explains. "If I ever even begin to talk marriage again, they will have me committed until the urge subsides. They promised."
Buchanan's is an interesting, troubling story, and what dilutes the feeling of being escorted on a grim tour of what must be a cavernous Miami morgue is that she writes with a kind of Sergeant Friday directness that is entertaining, horrible and sometimes horribly funny.
The book's flaw is that there are too many deaths, too many murderers for the ordinary reader. Buchanan can keep track of them, but the rest of us yearn for examples that would plead the case for the others. She has written stories about cases that invite whole books. And when one finishes reading, there is a dizzying sense of gore and horror, a residual feeling that human nature is not so sterling after all.
"The Corpse Had a Familiar Face" is a good book for journalists looking for tips (Buchanan once pretended the line had gone dead when an editor tried to order her back to the office). For crime buffs interested in drug murders, riots, Mafia hits and mercy killings, it's a lot better way to spend an evening than watching "Miami Vice." This is 275 pages of the real thing.
The reviewer covers the media for The Washington Post.