Robert Daley, Man with a Message, Once Again Tackles the Problems with Police in Man with a Gun

updated 05/09/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/09/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Most novelists pride themselves on their imaginations. Not Robert Daley. "I hate the word 'imagine,' " says Daley, looking as painfully earnest as a schoolboy. "My feeling has always been, stay close to the truth and three-quarters of the job is done."

In his 10th novel—and 20th book—Man with a Gun, Daley has tried to do just that. The setting is once again the world of the big-city cop, which Daley has rendered with best-selling verve in nonfiction (Target Blue, Prince of the City) as well as in fiction (Year of the Dragon). In either form Daley writes like the veteran reporter he is.

"Hemingway used to say that you can't be a journalist and a novelist," Daley says. "Like many of the things Hemingway said, that was ridiculous. Of course you can. And have to be. John Updike writes beautifully and has not a thing to say. He has never been anywhere or done anything and knows nothing except marriage and divorce. Now those are two pretty important things, but that's not enough. You have to show readers something they haven't seen."

In Man with a Gun Daley skillfully maps out the machinations of top police officials. The thriller draws heavily on the 11 months Daley spent in 1971 and 1972 as New York's Deputy Police Commissioner for Public Affairs, the department's chief spokesman. That is the job his young, idealistic protagonist, Phil Keefe, has just taken on as the novel opens. Keefe is an author and ex-foreign correspondent. (Daley, who turns 58 next week, had covered European sports and news for the New York Times and was a long-haired, youthful-looking 41 when he got the job.) Keefe is also a lamb whose naïveté and sense of personal responsibility lead him to lay his life on the line in a hostage crisis that leaves a poor and tormented black man dead.

Daley's tenure as a deputy commish, save for the potboiling, fictional hostage crisis, was just as colorful and controversial as Keefe's. He was reported to have been the first NYPD spokesman ever to carry a gun (Daley says his predecessor carried one too), and he answered radio calls in a squad car, sometimes showing up while perpetrators were still perpetrating. "I wanted to see what the hell was going on," Daley says, "and did I have the right to go into these dangerous situations unarmed so these cops would have to protect me too?"

In 1971 Daley instigated an investigation of several stolen-car rings and brought in a busload of reporters to record the bust—a move he now says he is "appalled by, because anything could have gone wrong." In Man with a Gun, things do indeed go horribly wrong after Keefe does the same.

Keefe's beef in Man with a Gun is that the Police Commissioner, reformer though he is, fails to back him up. Daley has the same complaint about his tenure. He says he took the job partly in the belief that ending routine secrecy would help "win back the people for the cops. Don't forget, this was a time when cops were being called pigs." But after a policy dispute, he resigned at the request of the Police Commissioner. "I shouldn't have trusted any of the people in headquarters," he says. Daley does admit that his habit of sending self-righteous and moralistic memos to the police brass was "wrong, wrong, wrong. You don't do that in an organization of that kind."

Author Nicholas Pileggi, who was then covering law enforcement for New York magazine, says Daley's big mistake was that "he refused to speak in police-ese, and a lot of the old hair bags in the department kind of resented him." Tony Bouza, now Minneapolis Police Chief, then a high-ranking uniformed official in New York, found Daley "very impressive, talented and charming, but he thought he was in a command position, which was a mistake. Also he loved the police perhaps more than he should have. If you have a gee-whiz quality, as sometimes he did, the police can take you in."

Daley has always believed in heroes, beginning possibly with the Hardy Boys, and in his own capacity to join their number. When he was 12 he wrote a novel (which he tore up at 13) about "a boy like me who had a bike, and on it he solved crimes." Attending Catholic school in Manhattan taught him that "there was good and evil and, by God, I knew which was which. When I got into the police department I felt at home because it so resembled Catholic school."

Daley also had a large competitive streak, particularly in relation to his father, the New York Times Pulitzer prizewinning sports columnist Arthur Daley, who died in 1974. "I competed against him every day of my life," Daley says. He became a champion swimmer in high school and in his 20s began to produce vivid nonfiction books on bullfighting and Formula One racing, as well as novels about pro football and newspapermen's egos.

But Daley didn't find his métier until he settled on cops and crooks, the subject of most of his books since leaving the NYPD. He has also written knowledgeably about food, wine and opera, intense passions he picked up from his French wife, Peggy Ernest, now 56, whom he met on the first day he visited Europe in 1954. One of their three daughters, Suzanne Daley, a 31-year-old New York Times reporter, says that even though he writes about death and violence, "My father isn't macho; my mother is his best friend." Daley clips and liberally praises all of Suzanne's articles (just as, incidentally, his father did for him).

A disciplined writer, a maniacally organized traveler, Daley exudes sincerity and enthusiasm. One of his latest passions is tennis, which he likens to writing. "There are so many books published every year, how do you get to be read?" he asks, his voice gentle as ever. "You hit the ball hard," he answers, "but make it come down inside the line."

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