Jeffrey Mariotte Day 2

One of the two protagonists in the thriller Empty Rooms is Detroit police detective Frank Robey. He’s served in the US Army and worked for the FBI, but for the last several years has made a career with the Detroit Police Department (DPD). Off the job, his interests include comic books, collecting comic book art, classic soul music, and his sweetheart Marcia. He met us for delicious barbecue at the legendary Detroit restaurant Slow’s Bar BQ, in the Corktown district, on the condition that we buy dinner. We happily agreed, and after tasting our Yardbird sandwich, we’d do it again.

Here’s how he’s described in the book, from the point of view of his partner Richie (Maynard)
Krebbs. “Frank was a broad-shouldered black man, thick through the chest and middle, but his black
pinstriped suit fit well and minimized his size. His jacket was open, and a tiepin bearing Superman’s “S” insignia held down a silk tie. His hair, more pepper than salt, was neatly cut in a way that accentuated the square shape of his head. Most cops his age Richie had known would be counting the days to retirement. The more mathematically minded might have converted the days to minutes.
Frank wore gold rings on two fingers, but not on the ring finger of his left hand. A web of fine lines
radiated from the outer corners of his eyes, as if he either liked to laugh or squinted a lot. He smiled
when he saw Richie, then seemed to remember he was supposed to be angry and closed his mouth.
While it was open, Richie noticed a slender gap between his top front teeth. “Maynard,” he said.

That matches up well with our impression, except that he wasn’t angry, and laughed frequently, usually a single “Heh” that seemed to bubble up from someplace deep inside.

JM: Introduce yourself to the readers, Frank.

FR: Yeah, okay. My name’s Frank Robey. I’m a detective with the Detroit Police Department. Before that, I was a special agent with the FBI, and before that, briefly, a peacetime soldier. I was stationed in Germany, where I never saw any action more intense than a bierhaus brawl one night during

JM: Why switch from the FBI to the DPD? That almost seems like a backwards career move.

FR: Only in terms of money and prestige. [Chuckles] When I was with the Bureau, I worked on the case of a missing girl. Her name was Angela Morton, and she just vanished from her home one afternoon. I wasn’t the lead on the case, but I was actively involved. The more I dug into it, the more it ate at me. We never could find a single hair from her head, though. After about six months, her parents moved away, and after another six months they moved again, leaving no contact information behind. Eventually, the Bureau had to stop devoting resources toward a case that seemed to be going nowhere. They pulled me off it, and wanted to transfer me to the Dallas field office. I said no thanks. I had been born and raised in Detroit, and wanted to stay. Plus I wanted to be able to keep poking around Angela Morton’s disappearance from time to time. And finally, my wife Tiana was terminally ill, and I didn’t want to take her away from her family and friends at a time like that. In the end, it was an easy decision, even though it meant a cut in pay and being knocked down to patrol. I worked my way up pretty quick, though.

JM: That’s the case that the book Empty Rooms revolves around, right?

FR: That’s right. It’s years later, though, and Angela’s disappearance is a very cold case.

JM: But you’re still interested in it.

FR: “Obsessed” is probably a better word.

JM: How are you introduced, in the book?

FR: [Clear his throat] Yeah, that’s a topic I’d like to discuss with somebody. I don’t show up until chapter 4, and I ain’t happy about it.

JM: But when you do show up?

FR: Like so:

“Evening, detective,” the uniformed cop said. “Looking sharp.”

“Frank Robey always looks sharp,” another uni said. He held a tray of paper coffee cups. “He’s a
regular fashion plate.”

Frank tugged on one of his French cuffs. “Fashion’s for people with too much time on their hands,”
he said. “What I got is style, and that’s timeless.”

“You’re all class, Robey.”

“I got class I ain’t even used yet.” It was a Louis Jordan line, and Frank was a Motown guy. But his
musical knowledge was extensive, and a good line was a good line no matter who you stole it from.
“Now, where is she?”

JM: That’s not so bad.

FR: Nah, it’s all right. It’s just the placement, man. Chapter 4? I mean, look at me. How am I not the star?

JM: I know, right? Why limit yourself to books?

FR: What, TV? Movies? I guess Denzel could play me, he put on a few pounds and got better looking.

JM: That’s what I like about you. Your modesty.

FR: Hey, what can I say? When you got it goin’ on, you got it goin’ on.

JM: Can’t argue with that. Tell us about your early life, so maybe we can figure out how to be as
cool as you.

FR: I was raised right here in the Big D. Daddy worked in the salt mine under the city, but in his heart, he was a musician. He laid some horn tracks down in his day. He’s on the “Heat Wave” album by Martha and the Vandellas, on one track with John Lee Hooker. He has a righteous, wailing solo on Smokey Robinson’s second album, and he did some horn section stuff for the Temptations. Others, too. But gigging was too unsteady. He wanted a stable income. He wanted to be able to send all three of us kids to college, and he did. Momma worked, too, when she could, but raising three kids—me, Yolanda, and Claire—made that hard sometimes. After high school, I enlisted in the Army, but just did one hitch, long enough to know it wasn’t for me. I studied criminal justice in college, and between my degree and my service, was able to get hired on by the FBI. You know what happened from there.

JM: What’s your take on Richie Krebb?

FR: Maynard? He’s so smart, it’s scary. Terrible cop, because there’s only one part of being police that interests him, and it’s a part that most cops don’t get to do much of. If the PD could pay him to sit in a room where detectives could come to him with their cases and he could just say “This is the guy” or “Look there,” that would be his ideal gig, I think. I’m a plodder. I look at the evidence and interview witnesses and put things together one piece at a time, like a jigsaw puzzle. He knows so much about how criminals think that he can see the whole puzzle in his mind, right from the start. He’s narrowly focused, let’s say. To be nice, right? Dude needs a hobby. But within his area of interest, there’s nobody I know who can touch him.

JM: Would you work with him on other cases?

FR: In a hot minute. There are legal issues, you know, in involving civilians in police work. But the DPD uses volunteers, and sometimes paid consultants. Long as we can cover our collective ass, legally, I’d be glad to make use of his expertise. I’d be a fool not to, and Momma didn’t raise no fools.

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