With a force-five hurricane bearing down on fictional Biscayne County, homicide detective Jeff Kohl roosts in his favorite ficus tree with the tools of his trade: a .38 revolver, a glass of vodka, a jar of pickled okra, and a Walkman loaded with sitar music. Addicted to hot peppers and meditative heights, Kohl is no ordinary cop, and the crime at hand is no everyday horror. Someone - perhaps another peace officer - is murdering Miami women who give up their kids for adoption.
After several strangulations, one lesbian love affair, and 373 pages of brilliant local color, Kohl comes face-to-face with his mysterious quarry - and inadvertently drowns him in a knee-deep tidal surge near South Miami Hospital. "I couldn't end the book with the guy just getting caught," says Ramesh Nyberg, a veteran Metro-Dade homicide detective who hopes to publish his recently completed first novel, Sons of the Storm, this winter. "A homicide trial is the biggest loose end in the world. So the taxpayers are spared the expense."
If the 34-year-old Nyberg joins Joseph Wambaugh and William J. Caunitz in the slim pantheon reserved for cops-turned-detective novelists, he will be an oddity even there. Real homicide detectives almost never write successful murder mysteries, according to Alice Orr, a New York literary agent and former vice president of the trade group Mystery Writers of America.
"It's very rare to find," says Orr, who is peddling Nyberg's book to Manhattan publishers. "He's created a very interesting protagonist, one who's idiosyncratic without being so much of a kook that you can't take him seriously. He reflects the new consciousness that is happening in the mystery-suspense thriller. He isn't just the typical world-weary, embittered figure who is out of touch with his feelings. This is more of a thinking person's detective. He shows what really happens to a sensitive human being who has to look at shot-up bodies on a fairly regular basis."
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"Hmmph," says Nyberg, who is now hard at work on a second novel, also starring alter ego Jeff Kohl. Born in Madras, India, to a Swedish father and Indian mother, Nyberg grew up in Miami and studied music at Miami-Dade Community College. He became a cop in 1979 - six months before the McDuffie riots and the first wave of the Mariel boatlift - after a near-mystical encounter with a police scanner. Nyberg has spent the past seven years in homicide - about twice as long as the average stint. Today he is one of four members of Metro's Cold Case Squad, the elite unit responsible for closing old, unsolved killings.
Nyberg says he settled on fiction to avoid potential legal and ethical pitfalls inherent in a true-life story about the Metro-Dade Police Department. Initially, he had hoped to forge a new standard of accuracy for the police procedural. Many of the descriptive passages of his completed novel - the crime scenes, morgue procedures, investigative techniques - attest to that commitment, while the plot line allows for the whimsical and the fantastic. (The villain, wouldn't you know, was abandoned in infancy during a hurricane; his `cell memory' of the event inspires him to murder young mothers whenever the barometric pressure drops.)
"I love detective novels, but some of them really tick me off," says Nyberg. "You're reading this really good story, and then all of a sudden there's something so hokey or so obviously wrong. If Tom Clancy made a similar mistake about a submarine, he'd lose half his following. On the other hand I realize that realism is great, but people want to be entertained. If you produced a realistic TV program about cops, it would probably be boring 27 of the 29 minutes it was on.