To hear Edna Buchanan tell it, the phone rang at her desk in Miami on Friday, Dec. 21, 1979, and from that point on, “Life would never be the same again.” The call was a tipster reporting that a Black motorcyclist was either dead or about to die as the result of a beating he’d received at the hands of a group of all-white police officers, who’d pummeled him with their long, metal flashlights that doubled as batons. The motorcyclist’s name was Arthur Lee McDuffie. If you are of a certain age and grew up in South Florida, you know McDuffie’s name and the broad outlines of what followed: McDuffie died, and the officers who killed him were subsequently acquitted at trial by an all-white jury in Tampa, sparking a three-day-long uprising. The way broader America remembers Rodney King, South Floridians remember McDuffie.
But this is not the story of Arthur Lee McDuffie. It’s the story of Edna Buchanan.
Buchanan’s 1987 book, The Corpse Had a Familiar Face, came out at the peak moment of Miami’s murder rate, the power of newspapers, and the author’s own fame as the country’s greatest police reporter. The book is in part a memoir of her life on the police beat for the Miami Herald, part victory lap, and part manifesto on what crime reporting should look like. Calvin Trillin had profiled her for the lofty pages of the New Yorker the year before, in a piece that itself became a minor legend, making Buchanan both a famous journalist and the subject of a famous piece of journalism. Months later, she won the Pulitzer Prize in general news reporting for her “versatile and consistently excellent police beat reporting.” If you believe that the hype around a book can be measured by its review the New York Times—and who writes that review—then know that Buchanan’s book was reviewed in the Times by the modern master of vampire novels, Anne Rice. She loved it.
Book buyers agreed. A year after being published, the book required a fifth printing. Disney bought the movie rights. The TV movie came out in 1994, starring Bewitched’s Elizabeth Montgomery as Buchanan. All this put her in a rarified air few writers, let alone journalists, ever reach.
My copy of The Corpse Had a Familiar Face is a first edition, with the bright orange background, fuchsia palm trees, and fake bullet holes that seem to have been required of anything representing Miami in the ‘80s. I reached for it as America erupted this month, yet again, in protests over the killings of Black people at the hands of police, wondering what Edna Buchanan, one of the greatest influences on late 20th century crime writing, would have to offer this moment.
But what struck me, from page one onward, was how police positive it was. How it is littered with calls for tougher justice, using victims as props to demand harsher sentences, and how it ignored all the ways American society sets people up to break the law in the first place. How bad behavior by officers—even the one Buchanan briefly married—is condemned, but never really traced back to any larger issue. How Buchanan’s words have reinforced institutions that a growing American conscience believes are no longer, and perhaps never were, inherently good, or even necessary at all.
Maybe I could write all this off as a book that just didn’t age well, if it weren’t for what Buchanan and her body of work have represented, and for decades, set the template for—the epitome of what a crime reporter in America is expected to be.
The book begins with a simple refrain. Everyone moves on from murder, Buchanan declares, except for her. Detectives get assigned other cases. Editors get excited about a new story. The public memory fades… but not Buchanan’s. Like an oracle predicting a future filled with murder recap podcasts and an endless pipeline of true crime shows to binge, she lays out the appeal of true crime in one sentence: “But I can’t forget.”
Except memory is a fickle thing, and it’s telling what Buchanan remembers from all those years of writing about the dead. There are moments when she seems to be upholding the values of each and every life, like when she says of families that never get justice, the loss of good people too soon: “There is no dirt-bag murder.” But elsewhere she offers the startling observation that most people have nothing to fear in Miami, because the vast majority of victims “contribute to their own demise.”
“They deal drugs, steal, rob, or stray with somebody else’s mate until a stop is put to them,” she writes. “Most Miami murder victims have arrest records, most have drugs, alcohol, or both aboard when somebody sinks their ship.”
And it’s not just the not-so-innocent victims who are at fault. Buchanan deplores people who won’t talk to police, who go “blind when the shooting started,” without acknowledging the many good reasons why some communities don’t trust the police. Some kids will never develop a conscience, she says, detailing the lives of murderous teens, giving no space to the idea that murderous teens are a product of their society. She admits to never forgiving one woman’s killer, which might seem noble until you consider that she is neither judge, nor jury, nor the woman’s family or friend. She recalls a man found dead, a “nickel-and-dime dope dealer,” and mentions in a passing glance how police recognize him—turns out they shot him once. Buchanan doesn’t spend a moment wondering if that should be a reason why a police officer, or anyone, should recognize anybody. In her world, bad things happen, and Buchanan does her best to describe the bad things, but she never asks why.
And that’s Chapter One.
The heart of the book is Buchanan breaking down the life of a police reporter. The chapters have self-explanatory titles like “Crooks,” “Sex,” and “Missing.” “Crooks” opens with the advice, “You should not pity most criminals, either; tie a tourniquet on your heart. Sad and sleazy losers are easy to feel sorry for, until you recall what they have done, over and over and over, and will continue to do, given the chance. They say all they need is a break, but if you check it out, you find they’ve used up lots of them.”
“Sex” is mostly about rape, and includes accounts of five officers who sexually assault a teenage sex worker and an ex-cop who murders his sweetheart, although Buchanan doesn’t stop to ask if that should have been of concern. “Drugs” is exactly what you’d expect of 1980s writing about drugs—they’re bad, don’t do them, and they ruined Miami. (“Drugs” also contains the only passing mention of AIDS in the book, in a passage about crack houses.) “Justice” is about what it takes to get bad guys into jail. “Missing” is a template for every pretty-white-girl-goes-missing story you’ve ever read. Most of it follows mother Susan Billig in her years-long quest to find her missing daughter, Amy, and it entails private investigators, chasing down tips, and befriending murderous bikers; Susan Billig is the archetypical mother on a mission. But you know the ending of this story because it has, thanks to technology, become an everyday part of the news cycle. It’s Nancy Grace, right on the page. Amy’s never been found. Her story lives on at her own Unsolved Mysteries Wiki. Susan Billig died in 2005.
Naturally, there’s a chapter called “Cops.” It’s here that the true tension of being a police reporter unfurls. Because to be a great police reporter—the kind editors champion, the kind that gets raises and promotions, the kind that wins a Pulitzer—you have to be friends with a lot of cops.
This sort of capture is true, to some extent, of almost every job in American journalism. To get promotions you need scoops, to get scoops you need sources, and to have sources you need to cultivate a certain camaraderie with people; they have to trust you, which might or might not translate to their belief that you are willing to tell the story their way, and not ask too many uncomfortable questions. But on the police beat, this tension is ratcheted way up. Here, police have already set the narrative. They are where the story starts, they have the official titles and the institutional authority, and also they have the guns.
But the Buchanan model is not, primarily, about police accountability. It’s about writing a story that leaps off the page with stunning details, a story that will open with a witty opening sentence—the “lede”—and a career full of brilliant ledes, so many that the debate over which lede was your best will appear in the New Yorker. In this model, the goal is to write to sentences like “Gary Robinson died hungry,” or “Bad things happen to the husbands of Widow Elkin.” Something powerful, distinctive, and confident. Something that screams 1A, the analog equivalent of going viral.
Getting that level of detail that fast on a daily basis requires a lot of help. Help getting to a crime scene before anyone else. Help knowing key facts, like what show was playing on the TV at the time of the homicide. Or help closing certain loops in a narrative—what happened in a gap of time, or who fired the gun. There is only one group of people who can consistently provide that level of detail about a crime scene. The Buchanan model requires knowing, and gaining the trust of, a lot of cops.
Buchanan is brutally honest in this regard. She names her favorite cops who are also her favorite longtime sources. Miami police, she writes, “must be among the best and most experienced in the world.” She pities the officers who can no longer retaliate when someone spits or curses at them. Florida’s long history of police brutality, including influence by the Ku Klux Klan itself, and Miami’s specific and not even 100-years-ago relationship with the Klan, goes unmentioned; all her readers get is the occasional reference to projects at the Herald on police brutality. In her account, the bad cops only slipped in due to bad hiring practices, or they gave in to various temptations. And she never dwells on police mistakes. Ever.
Cops are only human, Buchanan reminds her readers, which is true. So is every person she writes about.
Sherwood “Buck” Griscom was “South Florida’s most deadly cop,” Buchanan informs us. He shot eight people, killing four. “Griscom fought so many gun duels he cannot remember them all.” One of the victims who survived is unnamed, but, per Buchanan, doesn’t hold a grudge. In the light of 2020, this sounds like an officer who should at least be investigated and pulled from street work. But each shooting is ruled justifiable—in Buchanan’s book, Griscom’s not a threat, just a real-life Dirty Harry.
She goes into detail about two of Griscom’s shootings: A 20-year-old in a stolen car from Michigan who flashed a gun at Griscom when he put his hands up, and another in a failed traffic stop that turned into a high-speed chase that evolved into an ambush with a gunman trying to shoot him. The man from Michigan died; he was wanted by police in Michigan but Buchanan never says for what or why. In the second case, the wounded driver was “an escapee from prison where he was serving life for murder and bank robbery.” The two people aren’t named, their families aren’t quoted; according to Buchanan, they’re just bad guys who did crimes. Buchanan doesn’t attribute any of what she wrote here, or supply evidence to explain how she knows these narratives are true. It’s implied that main source is Griscom, for she’s glowing about him as a cop, and the supplemental details from investigating agencies one would expect are either absent from her account, or woven in without attribution.
This to me is professional misconduct that goes far beyond beat capture, the necessary if ugly chumminess of making the journalism sausage. Maybe her account is true, and maybe it isn’t. The dead can’t speak. Buchanan knows that.
The book marches on toward its most important chapter, McDuffie, where Buchanan’s doggedness and inherent limitations both reach their natural conclusions.
Buchanan gets a tip that police have beaten a motorcyclist to near death. Works the tip hard. She talks to sources in the medical examiner’s office, who confirm he has died, and to McDuffie’s grieving mother, who begs for answers. She checks out the motorcycle and can tell, immediately, that the damage wasn’t from a crash. She checks the names of the officers involved: Several of them leap out, because she’d seen them a year earlier in a Herald series about police brutality. The night before, she remembers, she’d gotten a call from a cop. “The cop said a supervisor, aware that [Michael] Watts had difficulty in dealing with blacks, had deliberately transferred him to the predominantly black Central District.” The phrase turned itself over and over in my mind after I read it—“difficulty in dealing with blacks”—about as cruel a euphemism for racism as I could imagine.
Buchanan does what all great police reporters are expected to do. She gets the story of McDuffie’s death at the hands of police onto the front page, although she concedes it is not a strong story, which she blames on an “inexperienced editor” stripping key details from it. But she got it out there, and it was enough. A day later, some of the officers involved were relieved with pay. A few others flipped, agreeing to testify. Within days, four officers would be charged with manslaughter, and later a fifth was charged with being an accessory after the fact. The case was moved to Tampa, where the judge dismissed charges against one of the accused. The other four were acquitted by an all-white jury.
The McDuffie uprising followed. Eighteen people, both Black and white, died in the ensuing days. Buildings went up in flames. The National Guard was called in.
For pages, Buchanan breathlessly details the violence, the destruction, the fear the uprising instilled in people in Dade County—especially white people. But once again, the why remains elusive. Why are so many people angry? What could be done to eliminate the cause of so much pain. Instead, Buchanan concludes the chapter by exonerating herself.
“I am not to blame,” she writes. “It wasn’t me who got caught up in an adrenaline-crazed chase. I didn’t kill Arthur McDuffie or lie to cover it up. I was only the bad-news messenger, the reporter who found out and wrote the story. I still think about it. If it happened again, what would I do differently? I still don’t know.”
Earlier in the chapter, Buchanan reports that a colleague told her that during the rioting they heard an emergency room nurse shout, “You can thank Edna Buchanan for this!” Perhaps that is true. But writing is making choices. Buchanan chose to include this slight that, if true, was said by someone in an extremely stressful environment, and use it as a pivot to herself, to discuss her own role in the story. She never bothers to consider, let alone state plainly, that the likeliest answer is the most obvious one: Arthur McDuffie, a father, a former Marine, and beloved local insurance salesman, should still be alive.
The account ends with Buchanan checking in on almost everyone—the cops who were acquitted, including several who landed back in law enforcement, the widow of a person killed in the uprising, even the sudden death of the lawyer who had represented the McDuffie family. But she never checks back in with the McDuffie family to ask how they are; there is a passing mention of a civil settlement. Their usefulness to her is done. Their loop is never closed. Years later, in an interview, Buchanan said, “Blacks will tell you that race was a factor, but I don’t think so.”
The story of a successful white lady who just can’t stop writing about murder doesn’t seem shocking or revolutionary now. It feels cliché. But in the 1980s, none of the clichés existed yet. What existed was Edna Buchanan.
There’s an easy allure to her story. A woman in the still male-dominated world of the 1970s and 80s, covering a male-dominated beat. She didn’t have an Ivy league degree, a private university degree, or any college degree. She hailed from Paterson, N.J., where she’d worked wiring switchboards, moved to Miami Beach on a whim with her mother, applied for a journalism job only after a fellow student in a creative writing class suggested it, and spent five years working at a long-gone community newspaper before finagling her way onto the Herald staff—famously, by offering to write the obits.
Buchanan’s fame came late, which added to the appeal. When Trillin profiled her, she was in her 40s, twice divorced, fond of dressing in slacks and silk skirts, and doing the most uncool thing a woman of any era can do—living alone with a lot of cats.
Buchanan took a leave of absence from the Herald in 1988 to write crime novels and never went back, although she still wrote for the paper from time to time. That same year, she appeared on Late Night with David Letterman. It’s a strange watch. Letterman has no idea what to make of her, and Buchanan is perfectly herself. At this point, she has her talking points down pat. She recites one of her most famous sentences – “Gary Robinson died hungry”—from memory.
I spotted my own copy of The Corpse Had a Familiar Face in a used book bin at the Miami Book Fair, at a time when it felt like I had no choice but to buy it. From 2005 to 2013, I worked the Herald, mostly the night shift, aka the night cops shift. My job entailed a mix of reporting any news that broke at night, mostly crime, as well as doing whatever the morning shift people had decided wasn’t worth their time, which was mostly crime. Saying I was doing the same job as Buchanan would be a stretch. She got to work during the day, I mostly didn’t. Because I was the last reporter left, I also had to cover random city meetings, sudden court verdicts, and short, quick features to go with the day’s photos. In newspaper lingo, I was never “lead cops.” It was more that I lurked in her shadow. I bought her book because I felt obliged to, as a fellow Herald reporter.
A classmate in journalism school once told me that she aspired to be a police reporter, just like Buchanan; Buchanan’s work was included in our textbook collection of great works of literary journalism. When I interned at the Herald in the summer of 2003, Buchanan wrote a 1A story for the paper about a former central Florida officer convicted of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl. The editors at our weekly intern meeting downtown mentioned this to the group in tones conveying that this was important, and we should all be very impressed. Her name would come up every now and then in the newsroom and at journalism conferences, always as an exemplar of what a crime reporter should aspire to be.
Buchanan’s description of the grind of being a newspaper reporter contains a wealth of accurate detail that describes the job when I worked at it perfectly, and probably still does. She works weird hours. She has very little social life. She spends much of her days dealing with people who do not want to see her: Cranky cops who don’t want to talk, witnesses who don’t want to talk, grieving families who might talk, if they can handle it. Nobody likes a police reporter, she wrote, and that’s true, although it’s nothing personal. Because seeing a police reporter means this is very likely the worst day of your life. She keeps her purse clean, even if everything else is a mess, so that if something bad happens to her she won’t be dead with a dirty purse. I did that, too.
“I had no clue that a newspaper will swallow up your life until little is left for a novel, great or otherwise,” she wrote, true then and now.
But whenever I revisit what I wrote from that time in my own life I’m struck, not by my writing or my reporting, but by how much sadness I shoveled into the paper day after day after day. People generally have two reactions to hearing you were a crime reporter: Oooohhhh, that’s so fascinating tell me everything! Or ooooohhhhh that’s so sad tell me nothing. The older I get, the more I wonder why nobody ever asked why my job was necessary, why everyone believes we live in a world filled with crime (we do not) and that it must include crime reporters.
A documentary about the McDuffie uprising, When Liberty Burns, came out earlier this year. Produced by Femi Folami-Browne and Dudley Alexis, who also directed, the film recounts McDuffie’s life, death, and what followed within the context of Miami’s decades of oppressing the Black community. Historians weigh in on the many ways Miami branded itself as a tropical, cosmopolitan paradise while also upholding segregation, forcing Black police officers to sue for representation from their own union, and paving over the thriving Black community in Overtown to expand an interstate. With the story of the Black community in Miami in the foreground, the true tragedy of McDuffie—that his death and its terrible aftermath were needless and avoidable, but for Miami’s racism—is finally made clear.
Edna Buchanan’s Miami is a paradise, cosmopolitan and international, with endless miles of sandy beaches, palm trees, and too many sunny days to count. Here is Miami, with its corruption, police brutality, and oppression—and don’t they make for such wild stories. Making a world, or even a Miami, where these cruelties might fade away is never mentioned; there is no discussion of why the state has no income tax, and one of the stingiest unemployment programs in the nation, or why or how Miami housing remains deeply segregated. It’s crime writing, sure. I’d argue it’s also the ballad of white Miami, of white America, where stories of the people at the bottom are spun into tales of heroism and tragedy, while they are kept, by force, on the bottom.
But what still defines success in many a newsroom is getting something sexy. Editors love sexy. Sometimes they’ll ask you for it: Gimme something sexy, something I can sell in the meeting. And you know who has lots of sexy stories? Cops. Newsrooms, themselves institutions with reputations to protect, can’t help rewarding those in good with local police departments.
So in 2020, I worry journalists will still be rewarded for writing, “Gary Robinson died hungry.” I don’t know they will be rewarded for asking why Robinson was hungry, or whether he should have died; he was shot dead by a security guard. Buchanan left that part out of her legendary lede.
As journalists grapple with the question of how to write about the police—to help create, perhaps, a better future—I checked to see when Buchanan, who’s now 81, last wrote for the Herald. It was an op-ed in 2016, scolding the media for how it had covered the presidential election. Buchanan wrote that she had intended to vote for Donald Trump, although she never said outright if she did or not. For once the woman known for her crackling details chose to be elusive.