'Bad Day on the Bayou': Officer who began LE career in his 50s releases cop novel
Mark Johnson was one of two 50-year-old men who graduated Mobile's police academy in 2003
By Lawrence Specker
MOBILE, Ala. — Mark Johnson once walked the streets of downtown Mobile as a top executive of a prestigious nonprofit. Later, after a most unusual midlife career change, he patrolled the same streets as a 50-something rookie cop. On Friday he’ll be one of the attractions at the city’s monthly art walk, as a fledgling novelist.
Going through police academy training in late middle age was tough; Johnson made that plenty clear in “Apprehensions & Convictions,” a memoir he published about seven years ago. You’d think going from memoirist to novelist would be easier than going from executive to flatfoot, but Johnson isn’t so sure.
“I thought I would try it, but I had no idea it would take six years to complete it,” Johnson said of his new book, “Bad Day on the Bayou.” “And I don’t know if I would try it again, because that was just agony.”
Johnson will sign copies of the finished product at the Haunted Book Shop at 9 S. Joachim St. from 6-8 p.m. Friday. The event also will feature author Ocean Springs-based author Johnnie Bernhard signing her new thriller “Hannah and Ariela.”
Johnson’s career path has been unusual, to say the least. He’d worked for the United Way in Colorado and Wisconsin before landing in Mobile in the mid-’90s, beginning a seven-year stint as executive director of the United Way of Southwest Alabama. He found a lot to like in Mobile, but the arc of his career was tending toward frustration. As he explained in “Apprehensions & Convictions,” he’d begun to feel that philanthropy wasn’t getting at the roots of the social problems he saw. He wondered if a career change could put him down in the trenches, where he could make a difference in a more tangible way.
According to a 2003 Press-Register story, Johnson was one of two 50-year-old men who graduated Mobile’s police academy that fall, with Cuban immigrant Damian “Daddy” Orihuela becoming the oldest to win the Chief’s Award and Johnson, aka “Grandpa,” elected class president.
After 12 years on the force, it took Johnson about six months to write “Apprehensions & Convictions.” There were portion of the book where a reader could see Johnson stretching his stylistic wings, and in a 2016 AL.com interview he said that the idea of leveraging his real-life experience to write a cop novel was tempting. “I think I could get a lot closer to the truth with fiction,” he said.
If so, it didn’t come easy.
At a December book launch at Page & Palette in Fairhope, Johnson described some of the agony that went into his first novel: “What could be described as ‘the tyranny of choice’ paralyzed me for long periods,” he said. “I went through 3 complete revisions, point-of-view changes from 3rd person to 1st and back to 3rd, massive edits, major plot changes, new characters introduced, other characters removed. At one point, I stopped writing for a whole year, but of course it never left me alone, and I had to return to it just to get it done and out of my head. Then I gave it to a few trusted friends to critique, and — bless their hearts — critique they did. More painful — but essential — surgery was required.”
The upshot is a crime thriller that draws on Johnson’s experience, but not necessarily in any way you might expect. His protagonist is no surefooted super-cop who moves inexorably toward a happy ending.
Johnson’s “elevator pitch” for the book: “The murdered body of a teenager is found handcuffed to a fence in a south Alabama swamp. The cuffs belong to a wounded, unconscious police detective, Russell Hampton, a few yards away. News media trumpet ‘Black Youth Slain in Police Custody.’ Itinerant justice warriors roil restive crowds. Unreported is the friendship shared by the cop and the kid. The cop had promised the kid’s mom that he’d keep her son out of trouble — a promise he had no business making. Hampton vows to bring justice to the killer of his young friend, with or without the blessing of his department. His rogue investigation triggers mayhem surpassing even the shocking brutality of the crime that set it off.”
After joining the Mobile Police Department in 2003 Johnson spent six years on patrol and six years as a detective. Two incidents left him with nightmares that still occasionally wake him up. In one, he went into the crawl space under a house, cornering an armed fugitive who’d just killed another officer and stolen a police vehicle. The fugitive shot at him, and a bullet tore off the bottom of the magazine in Johnson’s pistol, spilling his ammunition. Johnson, lightly wounded and unable to reload, made the narrowest of escapes. In the other, he confronted a shockingly young gunman in the midst of a Mardi Gras crowd that seemed to be as much of a threat as the shooter.
It’s the shock, uncertainty and lingering trauma of such adrenaline-fired moments that he wanted to bring to his fiction. In “Apprehensions & Convictions,” he said he’d gone into police work with the naïve belief that academy training would give him all the tools he needed to handle such moments. But he found that no training could prepare for the moments of crisis and their aftermath.
Johnson said the scariest parts of police work were the threat of losing his life, the possibility he’d have to shoot to kill and the possibility of killing an innocent bystander. So he began “Bad Day on the Bayou” by subjecting Hampton to an amalgam of all three. His protagonist isn’t a man immune to fear – he’s a man engulfed by it.
“I can remember pulling over cars at night,” Johnson said. “Particularly if they’ve got tinted windows and you’re all alone and you don’t have backup or another cop on the other side, and you walk up to that window and you can’t tell how many people are occupying the car and you don’t know if they’ve already got the gun in their hand and are waiting to get you at their window. I would walk up and I would have to put my hands in my belt, hook my thumbs to my belt, so they wouldn’t see my hands shake when I asked that they hand me their driver license. Maybe that’s just me, and I don’t mind admitting it, but I suspect a lot of cops experience those kinds of feelings of sheer terror and not being sure of what you should do or even what you can do.”
Johnson didn’t want to spoil any key details, but he did say that Hampton lets himself get pressured into some very bad decisions, while tangling with some very, very bad people. “This guy screws up so badly,” he said.
“It kind of turns dark,” he said. “This isn’t the typical mystery that gets solved by the good guy and there’s a gun battle that he wins.”
Maybe it’s the last outing for Johnson’s fictional counterpart, maybe not. Maybe it’s the first and last product of his life as a novelist. If so, one can’t help but wonder: What will his next career be?