Edna Buchanan's Life Is No Day at the Beach—Her Calling Is Miami's Vice
After nearly 20 years spent covering crime in Miami, Buchanan may be the best police-beat reporter in the U.S., but she has yet to harden herself against human suffering. Without a touch of cynicism in her wispy, breathless voice, she talks about her love for her adopted Florida hometown, for crime victims, for the cops and for her job in general. "I still love it," says Buchanan, 49, "because the police beat is the only one on the paper where you can learn about people. Sex, greed, violence, lust, passion, it's all there. You try to learn what brings out the best in people—and to see what makes them go berserk."
Winner of the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for general reporting, for the Miami Herald, Buchanan has just published her memoirs, The Corpse Had a Familiar Face. In stark detail she describes the most bizarre and memorable of the 5,000 violent deaths that she has written about over the last two decades. Among them is the case of a crack addict who threw a severed head at a policeman not once but twice, the flustered cop having made the mistake of throwing it back the first time. Another story concerns two brothers who killed a third for interrupting their checkers game. Covering that one, Buchanan quoted the killers' mother's wistful observation, "I thought I had the best-raised children in the world." Material like that has inspired some memorable Buchanan opening lines, like this one in 1986: "There was music and sunlight as the paddle wheeler Dixie Bell churned north on Indian Creek Thursday. The water shimmered and the wind was brisk—and then the passengers noticed that the people in the next boat were dead."
After engaging readers with such gripping leads, Buchanan fascinates them with meticulously observed details and painstakingly gathered facts. A terrier in search of a quote, she will call a source repeatedly to get the telling remark that may bring a story to life. "The details are what pull the readers through the story," she says. And occasionally the details help solve a crime. "On one hit-and-run case," says Buchanan with pride, "my description of the car helped turn it up. To be able to make a positive contribution gives me the greatest joy. That's why I do it." Working almost nonstop, she puts in 16-hour days five days a week, then watches her job swallow the weekend. The drug traffic has made Miami one of the most violent cities in the U.S., so Buchanan sometimes finds herself writing as many as four stories a day.
Showing no hint of burnout, Buchanan is as excited by an absorbing, grisly crime story today as she was growing up in Paterson, N.J. In those days she would buy all the New York tabloids and read them aloud to her Polish grandmother, who couldn't read English. "The stories about criminals like Willie Sutton and the Mad Bomber (George Metesky) were my favorites," Edna says. "They were so bizarre, my grandmother thought I made them up. She worried about me."
After her hard-drinking father walked out on his wife and two daughters, Edna Rydzik had to forgo college to help her mother make ends meet. They both worked switchboards in a Western Electric factory, while Edna took a writing class at night once a week. There, the teacher compared one of her stories with the early work of Tennessee Williams. "He told me to read Katherine Mansfield and taught me to use paragraphs," she says. "That class was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me."
In 1961, after her younger sister had eloped, Buchanan and her mother visited Miami on a vacation that changed Edna's life. Both women fell in love with the town and moved there at once. Enrolling in another writing class while working as a switchboard technician, Edna met reporter Jim Buchanan, who got her a $45-a-week job as a society reporter at the now-defunct Miami Beach Sun. Eventually she married Buchanan, but after an unhappy time as a frustrated novel-writing housewife, she divorced him in 1965 and returned to the paper.
One of a small number of women reporters on the street at that time, Buchanan covered everything from cops to celebrities for the Sun, winning local awards along the way. "I knew the Herald was aware of me," she says, "because they would send reporters to cover my stories." In 1970 the Herald hired Buchanan as a general assignment reporter at $165 a week. "Things have changed," Edna observes, "because editors realize women cover the cops a heck of a lot better than men. Women are more sensitive, pay more attention to detail and have a deeper gut reaction."
Another brief marriage, this time to a policeman, convinced Buchanan that she was better suited to going it alone. It also gave her a unique perspective on the men that she works with. "No better human being exists than a good cop and no worse creature than a bad one," she has written in her autobiography. "The truth is, the good cop and the bad cop are often the same cop, at different moments, on different days, with different people."
Buchanan spends her infrequent days off working on her second book, a crime novel, does her laundry, goes to movies by herself and keeps her shooting skills sharp at a practice range—though she has never had to use her gun elsewhere. She sometimes visits her mother, a retired respiratory therapist who still lives in Miami. She is amused by one aspect of a planned Disney film based on her life. "They've taken some liberties with my sex life," she says. Namely, creating one.
Among fellow journalists, Buchanan's tireless fact-gathering has become the stuff of legend. Says admiring Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen: "I remember once when some poor soul got killed in a fire on the Palmetto Expressway. Through all the police barricades Edna got close enough to the scene to write, 'In the intense heat of the fire, his teeth exploded.' I couldn't have gotten that. She's amazing!"
The police, who tend to be wary of aggressive, independent crime reporters, grudgingly defer to Buchanan's skills and tenacity. Says Miami homicide lieutenant Mike Gonzalez: "When you want to know any detail of a murder case, call the best. Call Edna." But the highest accolade of all comes from another cop, who states simply and anonymously, "I sure as hell wouldn't want Edna tailing me."