Retired MPD detective uses Milwaukee as backdrop for first crime novel
Larry Powalisz was a officer and detective in the Milwaukee Police Department from 1973 to 2001. Even though he now lives in Houston, Milwaukee was a natural setting for his first crime novel, "Circle of Terror," which weaves local history and fiction – often in such a vivid way that it's hard to tell what's real and what's invented for the reader.
Set in present-day Milwaukee, the novel connects the real-life story of "The Mad Bomber" Idzy Rutkowski, who terrorized Milwaukee in 1935 – and a fictitious group of anarchists who used his crime spree as inspiration. The main character, Det. Declan Tomczyk, shares similarities with the author, himself. It's a quick, but extremely detailed read, filled with scenes of Riverwest, Bay View and other local landmarks that make the novel feel like a true crime story.
The book was a bold endeavor for a career law enforcement officer – he also was a special agent in the Coast Guard. We caught up with Powalisz when he was back in Milwaukee for a police convention to talk about his first foray into writing.
OnMilwaukee: How did you decide to write a a crime novel?
Larry Powalisz: My dad used to talk about this story in the '60s when were growing up, about the Mad Bomber in 1935. He lived right down the alley from Idzy Rutkowski, and he went to high school with him. I started thinking, man, there's a book there somewhere. So, I used the factual events of the '30s to create the fictional part, going back into history.
What was your research process like?
Powalisz: I knew some of the bombings, like the police stations and some of the banks. But when I was going through all the archives, I found a whole bunch of stuff connected that my dad probably didn't even know about.
I've never seen the level of Milwaukee detail in a novel before, not to mention the MPD process. How important was that to you to get it right?
Powalisz: I wanted to get some of the cop details. So I had people editing, and they wanted me to remove some of it. I said, I have to keep some of that cop slang because that's what we do.
How much did you have to fictionalize the plot and the policing process to make it interesting to a reader?
Powalisz: I added a couple of the things that occurred, like a robbery here and there. But a lot of those things were taken from some of my past incidents.
For someone who hasn't lived in Milwaukee for in a while, did you make a bunch of visits here to get the local flavor, or did you pull from your memory?
Powalisz: I worked at District 5 for eight years and a lot of stuff like the bombing and stuff that occurred, that was just from my years in Milwaukee. And I loved it at the 5th District. And then I was in the gang squad and the tactical force unit, riding around the city, and I had a lot of details from that. It's still my home town. I still love it here.
How did you go from the process of deciding you were going to write a book, to actually doing it and getting it published?
Powalisz: I probably started this book about 10 years ago when I was at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Brunswick, Georgia. I started typing it then. I shelved it for about five or six years. And my wife kept pushing me to do it. I gave it to a friend of mine, and he really created a better book. Because I write like a cop, he put action verbs in there. I found a publisher out of New York.
Not giving anything away, but at the very end of the book it sounded like you were priming it for a sequel.
Powalisz: The sequel is started, I'm about 20 percent done.
Are you sticking with some of the same characters?
Powalisz: Same characters, more traveling. I'd like to make a trilogy or more. That's my goal.
Do you identify personally with any of the characters? Declan, specifically?
Powalisz: Yeah. For 40 years I've been lifting weights, and I always wanted to be a football player but I was too slow. And I went to UW-Milwaukee so I put a lot of that stuff in there. And I'm military, so I made him Marine Corps.
One of the things I liked about the book was it broke down some racial barriers. Old white guy, young black high school student, cops of different stripes. Was that your experience on the force, that you guys all worked together?
Powalisz: We did, yeah. There were some times you'd have that racial stuff but we're all "blue," and that's the bottom line. If a cop calls for assist, I don't care, I'm going; I'll break through a wall to get to a fellow police officer.
I wouldn't call the book heavy-handed on the topic, but you get the sense that cops still have a commitment to serving and protecting. Did you try to emphasize that?
Powalisz: Every day you go to work you're there to help people. And if at some point you have to take a life, it's not something I ever wanted to do, but I knew that was part of the job. There are times we'd have child neglect, child abuse; I'd go home and cry, and give my kids a hug. Because that poor kid has to grow up in that terrible environment.
Do you think that any part of writing this book helped get some stuff off your chest, too?
Powalisz: Yes. It felt great. You feel like it's an accomplishment, and you're out there to help people. That's the bottom line. A lot of people think we're the bad guys. Are there bad cops? Yes. There's bad everything. We can't get away from that. We're human frailties, that's what we are.
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