Black White Blue: The Assassination of Patrolman Sackett revisits a tumultuous period of Minnesota history, tracking the consequences of a St. Paul police officer’s murder forty years forward into the here and now. Twin Cities-based journalist William Swanson, previously the author of Dial M: The Murder of Carol Thompson, about the 1963 slaying of a St. Paul wife and mother, recently answered questions about his new book.
What drew your interest to the Sackett case?
The conversation of a group of retired St. Paul police officers I met in the summer of 2008, when I was speaking about Dial M to an East Side book club. I had followed the Sackett case from the beginning, but had not given it much thought as a possible book topic until I heard the old cops discussing it. For them, James Sackett’s assassination, in May 1970, was a defining moment in their long lives and eventful careers. And the more I learned about it, the more the case seemed a defining moment in many people’s lives, maybe even the life of the community.
You’ve remarked that you’re drawn as an author to “dark subjects”––such as murder.
Blame my gloomy Swedish background, where the watchword was, “Every silver lining has a dark cloud.” Seriously, I think crime offers writers an irresistible entree into the lives of ordinary people––some extraordinary people as well––who find themselves, willy nilly, in extreme situations. The most interesting component of a riveting crime story is rarely the crime itself, but what occurred before and after, even long after. Patrolman Sackett’s assassination fascinated me for many reasons, but first and foremost was the effect it had even several decades later on the lives of his family and friends, the brotherhood of St. Paul officers, and the city at large.
You were twenty-five when Sackett was murdered. How do you personally recall those times?
As a college student and Army draftee, I would have described the period as wild––both exhilarating and ominous––and incredibly interesting. Beginning in 1963 and for roughly the next decade we experienced a half-dozen major assassinations and assassination attempts, the most devastating race riots in U.S. history, the Indochina war and a massive antiwar resistance, the civil rights revolution and women’s liberation, the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground, Charles Manson, Kent State, and Chappaquiddick––all that plus “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll”! In Germany, where I was stationed, we hunkered down among frequent bombings, shootings, and other radical “political action,” often targeted at us. Race relations at military bases such as ours were tense and frequently violent. In retrospect, given what was going on around the world circa 1970, one of the more unexpected aspects of the Sackett story is how surprised St. Paul’s police were that people were trying to kill them.
At the end of Black White Blue, you remind your audience that you’re speaking as a white man and that there’s a significant gulf between black and white perspectives on matters of crime and punishment.
I’m sure that African American readers will be able to discern the author’s color without having to glance at his jacket photo or peek at the Afterword. For white readers, I felt a reminder of that perspective gap was appropriate because most white Americans, including myself, have taken for granted that our law enforcement establishment and legal system, for all their faults, are mostly fair and equitable. I believe the system got it right in the Sackett case, but I thought I should acknowledge the fact that a lot of black people were skeptical, to say the least––and, given their history, with no small reason. That said, I had no qualms as a white civilian Minneapolitan writing about blacks and cops in St. Paul. If we only wrote about our own kind, place, and experience our bookshelves would be pretty thin and uninteresting.
What’s the best part about writing a book?
Writing the book. Poring over the transcripts and files, finding and interviewing sources, then creating an organizational architecture and writing the damn thing. It’s a tiring process that can swallow years of your life, but I love the work only slightly less than I love my grandkids. What comes after the writing, the production hassles and the need to help sell the result––well, not so much.
Care to say anything about your next book?
Only that I’ve just begun the research, it involves a very well-known crime, and most of the action takes place on the west side of the Mississippi River.
Meet William Swanson this Friday at 7 pm at Common Good Books as he talks about Black White Blue. Click on the title for more event info.