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Report to the Commissioner

By James Mills Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 286 pp. $6.95

By Robert Decherd

A DETECTIVE NOVEL which rises above the mundane to ensnare the attention of its reader and then holds a fascination through to the last, excruciatingly tense moment of resolution is an infrequent interloper among today's backlog of drugstore thrillers. But in Report to the Commissioner, James Mills has created just such an interloper: a story of deep suspense which moves on several planes of confrontation, ambition and human interaction. Slickly written, carefully strung together, Report to the Commissioner skirts the obvious and pivots on the unexpected; in the best tradition of detective stories, it leads the reader warily around blind corners and draws out each moment of uncertainty. And while Mills succumbs to some superficial, even hollow, characterizations, he succeeds in sketching a harrowing picture of a big-city police department and the people and jealousies which give that picture substance.

Report to the Commissioner is the story of Bo Lockley, a self-doubting rookie cop who joins the New York City Police Department out of remorse over his brother's death in Vietnam, but also in deference to the wishes of his father, a tough police veteran. Bo had planned to file for C.O. status in the draft prior to his brother's death; in the confusion of becoming a sole surviving son and not having to tell his father of his reticence to enter the army. Bo is moved by conscience to gratify his father and join the force.

It is a gutsy decision for Bo, but one which ultimately brings him into conflict with his own sense of justice. His mentality is that of a left liberal college student; he is sensitively conscious of race, and of human rights. The other detectives whom he encounters in the 16th Squad don't possess quite the same sensitivities. There is Seidensticker, a mammoth black man who calls Bo by his full name. Beauregard, and who is almost paternal toward him. He patiently helps Bo adjust to a job which doesn't always run parallel to written law, but Seidensticker poses an enigma to Bo because of all the detectives on the squad, he is most ruthless with blacks.

Seidensticker is also the most level-headed to Bo's cohorts, a fact which causes only more puzzlement. In Seidensticker, though. Mills has established a vivid character, one full of life and subject to life's pitfalls and successes. He is the best figure in the book. Others point up different facets of emotion, but none so fully and precisely as Seidensticker.

IN THE DECISIONS of higher-ups in the squad. Mills bares the personal ambition and selfishness which seep into law enforcement and often bring those most responsible for the law to circumvent it. He portrays a captain and lieutenant who chance serious reprisals in order to gain a breakthrough which will lead to promotion. In the process, they use Lockley as a pawn to further their plan, and they risk the life of an audacious female undercover agent, Past Butler, whose voluntary role in the scheme is to bed down with a high-rolling black pimp who works Times Square. The irony upon which Mills builds his book is that Lockley--the fumbling, naive newcomer--spoils the plan in a frantic effort to do his job well, to show Seidensticker and the other detectives that he is capable of success. But he doesn't lay off when the higher-ups say to, he pursues the girl they asked him to find as part of their designs on promotion. He finds her with the pimp, alias The Stick, and in a wild shoot-out in The Stick's apartment a stray bullet from Bo's service revolver kills the girl. The girl is Pat Butler.

In some ways. Lockley is the most unconvincing character in Report to the Commissioner. He is too lofty in his ideals, too typecast in his youthful confusions and contradictions, and ultimately, too naive to be a detective who has made it through the police academy, even if on his father's name. But he is also a rending figure, a person lost in the murky realitics of city life and unfulfillment. His only fulfillment--the successful pursuit of The Stick and finding his "search object", Det. Butler--ends in disaster. A case is brought against him by the Department for Butler's death: and in the despondence of knowing he has failed, Bo hands himself in a jail cell. It is doubly ironic: a corrupt Department brings about the death of one of its few honest lieges, a death which preceeds the dismissal of the Department's homicide charges by a few hours.

There are other weak links in Mills's tale, most notably Det. Butler. She is a gorgeous, ambitious and tough female cop who is just too surreal in her myriad attributes. Also, Mills employs an inter-Departmental report on the Lockley case as the vehicle for his story. He includes office memos, tapes interviews by the internal security office, and other "obtained" narratives such as a magazine article on Butler that never saw print. But despite his care in sticking to the format of a report, Mills slips into a trap posed by his own tight prose: no transcripts ever carried the power which he infuses into, say. Bo's description of the book's climatic scene in which he is locked in a darkened elevator with The Stick, with each pointing a loaded pistol at the other's abdomen.

The weak spots are far overshadowed, however, by the skillfull narrative and emotional quality which characterize Report to the Commissioner and make it a sure best-seller. It is no wonder that the movie rights were snapped up by a motion picture industry starved for clever suspense stories. Report to the Commissioner is no literary masterpiece. But it is a well-conceived and racy respite from drugstore detective tedium.

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