Alphaville, by Michael Codella and Bruce Bennett

Article published on September 28, 2011.

Alphaville is the true account of one NYPD officer’s career in Alphabet City, the heroin capital of the USA.  Having retired in 2003 as a Detective Sergeant, Codella recounts the most action-packed of his years on the force, just after joining up in the mid 1980s, during the height of the crack explosion.

The single recurring story is of Codella’s quest to bring a local drug kingpin to justice, although the book is principally a string of anecdotes, tales from the front line of the war on drugs.  Many of these tales are tragic, horrifying and violent, and few more so than the curtain raiser.  Setting the tone perfectly, Codella recalls the story of a baseball bat attack by one young man on two others.  The suspect bludgeons one victim so badly that his eyeball is detached entirely from the socket.  On investigation, Codella and partner Gio find the victims are two of the suspect’s closest friends.

Such is the content of Alphaville.  Avenue D, the venue for the majority of the action, is wall-to-wall with human misery, exploitation and extreme violence.  The effects of heroin abuse on the human body are examined in depth, with absolutely no detail spared.  When Codella regales the reader with the tales of corridors littered with faeces as a result of dealers cutting heroin with baby laxative powder, you can be assured he’s holding absolutely nothing back.

A similarly frank approach is taken to his own misdeeds, in one of the weaknesses of the book.  Codella was a dedicated cop, committed to taking “scumbags” off the street.  So much so that he admits to falsifying court testimony to secure a conviction, and assaulting suspects, both to obtain evidence and to preserve the balance of power.  The hard end of realpolitik is always distasteful, but anyone who cheered Vic Mackey through seven series of The Shield should not have difficulty stomaching Alphaville.  Worse is the note of hypocrisy; Codella embarked on a tireless quest to bring one drug dealer to justice, but has no qualms about respectfully attending the funeral of a Mafia figure he knew since childhood.  In addition, he gleefully tells recounts stories from his youth in which he beat and robbed pimps, and even participated in a robbery.  Beyond this, Codella’s egotism permeates the book, with the author delighting in tales of his own derring-do.  This at least however is understandable; after all, it would take nothing less than an alpha male to police Alphaville.

The voice of the narrator aside, Alphaville is rich with the history of New York.  Despite its horrors, Codella writes with a real love of his city.  During one of the book’s many forays into history, politics and economics, he waxes poetic about the duality of the New York story –

Like the Lower East Side and every other New York neighbourhood, Canarsie has two legacies.  One is recorded history – the facts, dates, and stats, newspaper articles, police blotters, census records that track waves and cycles of immigration, growth, building, suburban exodus, decay, and a new population from somewhere else getting the ball rolling all over again.  The other is the more ghostly remains – memories, stories, legends, and lessons that are all that remain of the individual lives, the fading faces and voices of the people who lived, worked and died there.

Favourable reviews have likened Alphaville to The Wire.  The two are similar in many respects, each sharing moments of humour and a total lack of self-censorship.  However, whereas The Wire served as a vast sociological tract, Alphaville is less concerned with analysing the underlying causes of the social discord in the Lower East Side.  Instead, Codella freely admits to being an adrenaline junkie, joining the force for kicks.  The utter futility of the war on drugs seems irrelevant to Codella; he makes no pronouncements as to solutions, instead he offers page after page of raw adrenaline.

Alphaville is no patrolman’s handbook, nor does it provide any penetrating social commentary.  However, for unabashed blood and thunder true crime, this hits the spot like a nightstick to the skull.

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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

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