Some say “it’s never too late to follow your dreams,” but we all know how life has a way of beating down even the most modest ambitions. Goals are circumscribed by family obligations, the day-to-day slog of work, the banal repetition of doing laundry and cleaning the gutters. “I was born to do it” becomes “maybe someday” becomes “I just don’t have time.”
Well, that’s you (and me). Not so much for Robert Sterling Hecker, former Gambit New Orleanian of the Year, 49-year veteran of law enforcement and the author of The Accidental Vigilante, a hard-boiled crime thriller about a detective who stumbles into involvement in a series of murders and abductions when he’s promoted into the unit that handles child abuse crimes. (If that sounds short on intrigue, just wait until the detective uncovers a connection to the Russian mob.) Hecker, who currently serves as chief of the Harbor Police Department, has been waiting to write a novel since high school. He spent the past three years writing his fiction debut.
Hecker spoke with Gambit about being inspired by police work and being a first-time novelist at age 69. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Gambit: You retired after 28 years with NOPD and now you’re chief of the Harbor Police Department. Tell us about drawing on your policing history as a writer.
Hecker: When I look at authors like [John] Grisham and [Michael] Connelly and [James] Patterson and [Patricia] Cornwell, they’re fantastic writers, they have millions of readers, and there’s no question in my mind that they did extensive research. [They] probably interviewed countless numbers of police officers and detectives, or did ridealongs. When I look at my situation, I lived it.
I was involved in those gun battles; I had bullets whizzing past my head. I had officers being shot right next to me. I was involved in those high-speed car chases where your adrenaline is flowing like a locomotive … There’s so many aspects of policework that you learn with experience. Just testifying in court; you’re a nervous wreck taking that stand because you’ve got some hotshot top-notch attorney grilling you and you can’t make a mistake. … So I feel I have an advantage as long as I can learn how to put that into writing.
G: Did you read crime novels throughout your career?
H: As an aspiring police supervisor, my free time to read was spent reading police manuals and management books to try and get promoted through the ranks … [but] early on I read some novels when I was a young police officer, an author by the name of Joseph Wambaugh. He was a retired police officer from Los Angeles. His novels were well-written, and reading them as a police officer I realized that he was writing from experience, even though they were fiction novels.
G: So it sounds like you were inspired to do something similar.
H: I had always wanted to write, even back since high school, and I just kept putting it off, and putting it off. … Back in the '90s I took a class about publishing and writing at UNO. The idea was still moving along.
Once I decided to do this, I decided after I get off of work, I’m going to go home and devote a few hours to the book. I have a study that I kind of shut myself in. [I] turned the TVs off and just concentrate[d] on getting a couple of chapters in.
G: Child abuse is a dark topic. Why did you choose it as a subject for the book?
H: I handled thousands and thousands of calls when I was with NOPD. Homicides, barking dogs, you name it. The one that affected me the worst were the ones involving kids that were molested or abused. That’s so frustrating because most of the time you can’t extract them from those families; you can only refer them to counseling or social services. But you know in your mind these kids are going to have a life of abuse, [or even] torture. That always bothered me.
[And] If it bothered me that much, [I thought] maybe that should be a topic I should write about.
G: It’s kind of funny; you’ve done so much in life — Gambit recognized you for your rescue work after Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods — and yet you still had this lingering ambition in the back of your mind. How does it feel to have accomplished your dream?
H: When you get that print copy sent to you, that’s the most exhilarating moment, one of the most exciting moments in your life … It’s just a really great feeling to get there. I always tell people, I want to walk through that airplane and see somebody holding that print copy with my name on the cover.
Hecker plans to donate some of the profits from his book to child advocacy organizations. He’ll read from and sign The Accidental Vigilante at Garden District Book Shop at 6 p.m. Sept. 21.