Dashiell Hammett, in his Pinkerton days, would no doubt have hesitated to set his gumshoes on a homicide unit with a pink linoleum floor. And who knows what he would have said about mauve blinds.
Or the rest of the District's newly refurbished investigative unit: the house plants, the plastic-lined garbage cans, the matching chairs and desks, the trendy drop ceiling and the very clean, very white walls.
But, as most investigators will tell you, the messy reputation of detectives should be left to the movies. This is real life in the city with the highest per capita homicide rate in the nation, with real long hours for the men and women who do nothing but investigate murders. Better to have the comfort of Aetna Life & Casualty than the color of Hill Street Blues.
Which explains why the $130,000 remake of the third floor offices at 300 Indiana Avenue NW is a color-coordinated hit. There have even been meetings on what can't go up and what will go up on the whitewashed walls. (Pictures of crime scenes and maybe a blow-up photograph of the city are high on the decorator list.)
That no one -- not even detectives nearing two decades of service -- remembers even a rumor about the last time the place was renovated may have something to do with the excitement.
Or maybe it's all the new toys.
Gone are the rotary phones that used to go on the blink whenever the janitor mopped the floor. In their stead are consoles that chirp-chirp, allow for conference calls and even offer intra-office paging, a civilized improvement over the "Hey, PICK UP" they replaced.
Soon there will be something called an electriever, an automated filing system to house the homicide unit's ubiquitous files, making obsolete the black and olive-green cabinets that stand like sentinels along the walls.
There are now four instead of three interview rooms. Each has an exterior light over the door, which, when on, signifies that an interview is taking place. A camera with an optic lense will replace the cumbersome video equipment used to tape confessions.
But one of the biggest improvements, said the unit's commander, Capt. Alfred J. Broadbent, is the redesign of the space. The partitions that isolated clusters of desks are gone, and now there is a clear view from one end of the long room to the other. There are 54 detectives and 54 desks, and for the first time the entire unit is in one office, and on one floor, instead of two.
Broadbent, whose large corner office and an adjoining room for lieutenants are the only new space in the unit, said the redesign encourages the sharing of what detectives call "soft information," the tidbits of one case that may help solve another.
"Before," said Broadbent, a former Marine, "everybody was in a little hole. Now it's more conducive to the type of work we do. It's the same space. It's just a better use of the space."
The effect has gone a long way already. For the first time, Detective Patrick McGinnis has his very own desk, a major improvement over the window ledge he was assigned when he first joined the unit. For others, the redesign means camaraderie.
"It's a real office environment. You can talk to people. You can see things," said Detective Dwayne Stanton, a six-year member. "Morale is already up. We laugh and we joke now."
The renovation was a priority for Police Chief Issac Fulwood Jr., who during a recent ribbon-cutting ceremony said he had to "rake and scrape" for money to do the work. Like other city departments, the police department has had to go without needed improvements because of budget constraints, but Fulwood promised to come through, and he did.
"When you look at what these people do," he said of the homicide investigators, "they ought to have at least good working conditions."
To the uninitiated, the old office was exactly what the lair of a hard-nosed detective should look like. There were cracked partitions, newspaper clippings, old photos, bulging files and coffee stains, and almost always the remnants of someone's lunch or breakfast or dinner.
The furniture was a hodgepodge of attic castaways, and no two chairs seemed to match. Indeed, some detectives brought in thronelike seats, massive structures that Broadbent said seemed an attempt to convey authority, Now everything is homogeneous-black chairs and black desks with brown tops, and Broadbent is insisting on uniformity.
District detectives, many of them natty dressers, say the Hollywood view of what a homicide unit should look like is confusing character with, well, dirt. Detective Willie Jefferson, one of the senior members of the unit, was asked if anything was lost in the office's transformation.
"Yeah," he deadpanned, "about a foot of dirt."
And what color was the old floor?
"It was green," he said, pausing for effect.
"But it could have been mold."