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Bad Day on the Bayou by Mark Johnson

It's time for another book review by Don Noble. This week, Don Reviews "Bad Day on the Bayou" by Mark Johnson.

After 23 years as an executive with the United Way, Mark Johnson took the bold step of quitting that job and becoming a police officer in Mobile, where he served for 12 years. In 2016, he wrote his memoir, “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. 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 black officers, has an affair with a black 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 the cop world to take a place alongside Wambaugh and other chroniclers of the thin blue line.

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.