Jessica Branson

The Dogs of Beaumont Heights

A lot of people ask me who the main character of the Holland Bay series is. It is, of course, Jessica Branson. In Holland Bay, she’s not the first person we meet, though she does show up in Chapter 1. When we do meet her, she’s lost a drunken bet with a friend, resulting in her waking up in a strange place. Well, not so much strange as unexpected.

She’s been a police detective for a while, even worked Homicide. But in that self-loathing moment in the mirror, she’s not in a good place. They’ve sent her to a dead-end squad in hopes she’d get frustrated and quit. She has a house she can’t afford, so she has to rent it out and live in a crappy one-bedroom. Her neighborhood could have been a 1950s Midwestern town yanked out of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series as everything’s thirty-to-forty years out of date and gone to seed. Continually late for morning roll call, she’s really late because, after five years of busy work and no meaningful cases, she catches a body.

It’s probably appropriate that pit bulls figure into The Dogs of Beaumont Heights, since Jess herself is a pit bull. She bites into the case and soon finds herself going after her “white whale,” ironically, a black gang leader named Ralph Smithers. The pair only have two confrontations, one chatty, one violent. Both lead to his downfall. She’s present when Ralph’s power, and Ralph himself, unravels and breaks his own cardinal rule: He shoots at a cop who’s not shooting back at him. When we meet Ralph, he is the king of their city, Monticello. Jess has one foot out the door with the other on a banana peel. By the end, her unfortunate one-night stand is her doting new boyfriend. She’s the darling of the mayor’s pet police squad. And she even has a dog.

Originally, she was not the main character. I pitch this series as 87th Precinct meets The Wire. And while Carella and McNulty dominate those respective storylines, they are not always the main character. In fact, in The Wire‘s fourth season, McNulty showed up long enough to enjoy some domestic bliss and popup as a beat cop. In McBain’s 87th Precinct, Bert Kling and even bigoted Fat Ollie Weeks took turns in the spotlight with Carella in the background. Likewise, my original central cop character was Jeff Kagan, the embittered Homicide detective who thinks Special Investigations is punishment duty. On the criminal side, Armand still had much of the spotlight, but he was a window into Rufus King.

Rewrites, more rewrites, and even more rewrites moved Branson and Armand to the center of Holland Bay. With Armand out of the picture for the time being, it becomes the Branson show. And if there’s one thing Jess has shown me after all these years, it’s she’s a survivor. She refuses to take the glaring hint the force wants her gone. When a new captain takes over with a mandate to use the unit to reclaim one of the city’s most depressed neighborhoods, she becomes the pit bull biting down hard on a case. That one of Ralph Smithers’s minions killed her original partner and mentor only drives her harder.

And she spends most of The Dogs of Beaumont Heights telling the deputy chief of operations to go to Hell as his attempts to oust her become more blatant.

I had a couple people ask me why I switched from Kagan to Branson. After all, he seemed more interesting to them. Unfortunately, while Kagan has a good storyline and history, he bored the hell out of me. The last thing I wanted to do was write yet another police detective on the verge of burnout as his life and career are slowly disintegrating.

Instead, I wanted someone clawing their way back after being exiled for so long. Branson fit that mold. Plus, pairing her with Greg Murdoch, the port cop who suddenly finds himself in plainclothes, really brought the character to life.

The other problem with Kagan was he basically became a less horny, more sober version of McNulty from The Wire. A couple of scenes I didn’t think twice about I had to rewrite when I watched a couple of TV shows and movies only to realize… As many writers discover to their horror… I’d seen that before.

Yes, this is why Holland Bay took over a decade to write and The Dogs of Beaumont Heights only took about a year. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. And when I realized it was easier to get into Branson’s head than Kagan’s, the story came together.

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