By Mark Johnson
Down and Out Books, 2022
Reviewed by Don Noble
After 23 years as an executive with the United Way, Mark Johnson got sick of it all—the meetings, fundraisers—and lost faith in whether it was all doing much good or making a difference. He took the bold step of quitting that job and becoming a police officer in Mobile.
His six years in patrol and six as a detective, in some of the worst neighborhoods, were filled with excitement and gave him the sense that he was having some impact on the community.
In 2016 he wrote his memoir of those years, Apprehensions & Convictions: Adventures of a Fifty-Year-Old Rookie Cop.
Now Johnson has turned to fiction and his debut novel, Bad Day on the Bayou, is a highly readable success, a police procedural of course, and thoroughly convincing. It’s set in Mobile, and more specifically, in the swamps and bayous south of Mobile around the Dauphin Island Parkway. The protagonist, Detective Russell Hampton, left a long career as a Methodist minister to become a cop. Hampton’s wife, Rachel, did not accommodate herself to this change. Hampton is divorced, misses his kids, is depressed and has a drinking problem.
Johnson’s opening scene can stand up to any. Hampton chases a suspect, Antwan Driggers, into a swamp—and after a ferocious fight, catches him. Intent on catching Antwan’s accomplice, he handcuffs Antwan to a chain link fence and goes after Carlos, called C’lo. In the gunfight, Carlos may have been hit. Hampton definitely is shot in his left side. He awakens in a hospital bed in pain but also under grave suspicion. While he was unconscious, someone slit Antwan’s throat and the Internal Affairs boys and the general public think it was Hampton. It may be that the Rev. Cal Sparkton is on the way to further agitate the crowd.
Antwan died, as it were, in police custody. Hampton had broken several rules, including cuffing him and leaving him unguarded. This is grossly unfair. Hampton in fact had a soft spot for Antwan, who he thought to be not so very bad and even redeemable. The Internal Affairs boys are, as always in police dramas, obnoxious.
Now on leave, and ordered to stand down, Hampton of course begins investigating to catch Antwan’s killer, to clear his name, and catch the person who shot him. Johnson takes us through the ways Hampton defies and/or circumvents the rules and it has the feel of someone who knows what he is talking about. The action scenes—and there are plenty—alternate with dialogue.
Hampton gets help from Clark Hogan, a Black friend who is a newspaper reporter for the dying Mobile paper, even though “Russ’s respect for the press was about as low as Hogan’s for the police.” They have bonded in AA.
He stays in touch with his partner and several other officers, has an affair with a pole dancer/prostitute named Chassity, flies to Yucatan to join forces with a Mexican police officer, and investigates a Black Mobile preacher, the leader of “Overcoming Faith” ministries, and a Black judge, both of whom may be corrupt in the most vile ways. These conversations are done in various dialects and accents—bold moves in these times.
It is not clear if Johnson means to start a series. It appears not, but if he does, he has the material and the expertise in cop world to take a place alongside Wambaugh and other chroniclers of the thin blue line.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors. A version of this review appeared in the Tuscaloosa News.