Robert Daley in the 1950s was the PR man for the New York football Giants, at the time the NFL was breaking into the national sports consciousness, and the Giants were about to challenge the baseball Yankees as the city’s glamour team. He reported from France for the New York Times, then worked for a year as a deputy commissioner, for public relations, of the New York City police department; his term, in 1971-72 coincided with one of the most turbulent in the NYPD’s history.
This led to his best book, the non-fiction Prince Of The City (1978), which was made into a great film by Sidney Lumet, starring Treat Williams, in 1981. Daley’s fiction has been less acclaimed, but a number of his novels are quite good, and were filmed: the underrated To Kill A Cop (1976) as a decent TV movie, Year Of The Dragon (1981) in an underrated movie by Michael Cimino, and Tainted Evidence (1993) as Night Falls On Manhattan (1993), again by Lumet in 1996. They are big books which read something like sagas; they inevitably present the police force as an extended family, sometimes like a mafia family, and like Joseph Wambaugh’s novels of the LAPD, they deal with the strains the cop’s world places on real family life.
Hands Of A Stranger (1985) is another of those, and it is a deceptive kind of story. It opens with Judith Adler, a rare female Assistant DA, who handles rape cases and aims to be a high flier. She’s brought into an investigation in New Jersey which involves drugs, but also women who appear to have been coerced and raped for a series of videotapes. The drug connection brings her to Joe Hearn, recently promoted to inspector and given command of the drugs squad. Joe is devoted to his wife Mary, but she is beginning to chafe as the pull of Joe’s career relegates to her to second place.
As Joe and Judith are drawn to each other, Mary embarks on a flirtation with her son’s baseball coach, which winds up with her in a sleazy Manhattan hotel room, trying desperately to get out. But before she can, an armed man crashes into the room, and with the coach bound and gagged, rapes Mary.
The set-up plays out as an almost inevitable personal car crash for almost all involved. Mary has to tell Joe she’s been raped, while witholding some details, and Joe, already devoting more time than he should to the videotaping case because he and Judith are starting an affair, begins investigating the rape on his own time, eventually learning the truth and looking for his revenge.
The story works in large part because Daley is so good on the pressures of the police department: the way Joe has to choose between family and job, the way his superiors assume Mary, with a college degree and a talented artist, is what one calls a typical broad, and the way Adler has to fight twice as hard as a woman for her job, and devote even more energy to it.
But it’s also a strange novel, because although it’s set in the Eighties, it seems to be taking place in the Fifties; it could be a novel of the police in the time of Mad Men. It could be largely because the morality of the police is still drawn on the previous era, and the people involved, largely Catholic, have that sort of 50s morality ingrained in their pysches, but there is a definite sort of double standard here, something that makes forbidden fruit seem more exotic than it might be, and something that Daley makes evident when, after the story resolves itself in shooting and near madness, Judith takes a Caribbean holiday and, in the end, is too moral to lose herself to a man she meets, instead returning to her job, a virgin as it were, a bride of the DA’s office. It’s rare to see such morality laid out so plainly, and of course, Adler is not Irish Catholic and not a cop.
It’s not Daley’s best work, but it is well paced and detailed, and fascinating for its odd insight. And it has a feel of reality to it. It too was filmed, as a three-hour two-part TV movie, with great leads: Armand Asante as Joe Hearn, Beverly D’Angelo as his wife (Italians playing Irish) and Blair Brown as the DA, renamed to make her a WASP rather than Jewish. The screenplay is by Arthur Kopit which in itself is interesting, given the issues of morality and the way behaviour is repeated, as a way of coping. I haven’t seen it, but the supporting cast (Michael Lerner, Forest Whitaker, and Arliss Howard) is strong, and includes Ben Affleck as the Hearn’s baseball-playing son. I will be searching it out, not least to see what Larry Elikann, a TV and TV movie director, did with the kind of material Sidney Lumet would crush.
Hands Of A Stranger by Robert Daley
Signet Books, 1986, $4.50 ISBN0451145097