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Nine Pet Peeves of a Terrorism and Law Enforcement Expert

A Session with Simon Gervais

Simon has been: in the Canadian military, a drug investigator, a member of a federal anti-terrorism unit, and a close-protection specialist tasked with guarding foreign heads of state visiting Canada…

A few days ago, my wife came back all smiles from a major shopping spree. From her blue eyes, radiant as ever, I could see how happy she was.  Her energy was contagious and I found myself grinning from ear to ear as I listened to her explaining the story behind every item in her bags. As excited as I was for her, shopping isn’t something I look forward to. With one exception: browsing through a bookstore. That makes me happy.  That makes me smile.

Like most of you, I live a frantic life where my reading time is getting more and more limited. I hope to reverse the trend soon, but for now, I’m reading a book every two weeks or so.  That is only twenty-four books per year, and I can guarantee you I’m buying way more than twenty-four books every twelve months. Truth is, I read mostly thrillers and I buy almost all of those I think I might find interesting.  There used to be a time when, once I started a book, it was a given that I was going to finish it.  Not so anymore.  Nowadays, with a to-read stack of more than sixty books, I find myself to be much more discriminating.  Every reader has his own literary pet peeves; some are so annoying that if you see a couple of them in a book, you’ll stop reading.

A protagonist you care about, a plot that leaves you breathless, and a good author’s platform are some of the things agents and editors are looking for in a submission.  If you can’t write a thriller with strong characters and an interesting plot, you’re pretty much dead in the water when it comes to getting your book traditionally published.  With that said, there are many other things to consider depending on the demographic makeup of your readership.  There are aspects of your book that, for readers like me (by that I mean current and ex-law enforcement officers, military personnel or anyone with real knowledge of our procedures and tactics) will dictate if I buy one book of yours, or the whole series.

Here are some of my literary pet peeves that will have me scratch my head and wonder if I should continue reading or quit right there.  These are personal opinions, of course, but I know most of my colleagues in the Armed Forces and police departments feel the same way.

  1. Surveillance.  One of the most frequent mistakes I find in books and movies is how the characters conduct physical surveillance. If the author didn’t research the subject properly, or in some cases, not at all, it’s a real turn off.  If your protagonist is following a vehicle by himself and doesn’t get “burned,” you’ve lost me. I’ve already grabbed my next to-read book. Unfortunately, because of my current position within my organization, I could easily get myself in trouble if I were to reveal trade secrets. Remember this, though: the word “team” should be surveillance’s best friend.  There are many books written on how to conduct surveillance operations.  Read one written by an ex-cop, or even better, take a course.  Many private companies ran by former law enforcement officers offer surveillance and counter-surveillance courses for civilians.

  2. Looking for a pulse with gloves.  That’s a big no-no.  To be honest, I’m a bit surprised to feel the need to add this to my list.  I was shocked to see that one of my favorite TV shows dropped the ball on this one.  There is simply no way to take somebody’s pulse while wearing a pair of leather gloves.

  3. Super-fast computer checks.  Computers like the ones we see in the TV shows “NCIS” and “CSI” do exist. Federal agencies and police departments have access to an incredible amount of data collected by their investigators.  Sadly, in order to research something through all our databases, it takes a lot of time.  You can’t simply type on the keyboard: please cross-reference Mr. Smith, DOB 1980-01-01, Vermont resident to all the Smiths who rented a vehicle in Dallas, TX. from February to April 2014.  No computer can do that. To search through a car rental agency’s database, you’d need a warrant, or a good hacker—which is, of course, illegal.  You also need to know the NYPD doesn’t have automatic access to the LAPD’s database, and vice versa. This reasoning also goes for the FBI, the DEA and all the other federal agencies, unless you’re part of a task force.  It is true that a police officer can run a bad guy’s license plate and have a result within seconds.  We’ll learn to what type of car the plate is attached, if the car is stolen or not, the name of the registered owner of the vehicle, his date of birth, his address and we’ll know if that person has a criminal record.  If we want to know when was the last time the registered owner made a purchase with his credit card, which numbers he called with his cellphone or what was his exact location when he received that important phone call, we must obtain a warrant, and that is time-consuming.

  4. SWAT officers handling the investigation. You need to be careful when your main character, a SWAT officer, handles the investigation. In all the major police departments across the country, SWAT officers (Special Weapons and Tactics) are used exclusively to conduct police operations deemed too dangerous for regular police officers.  Once the suspects are in custody and the location is cleared from any threats, the investigation is turned over to the investigators. Things are different in a smaller police department.  In these departments, it isn’t rare to see SWAT-qualified officers responding to calls and taking an active role in an investigation.

  5. The use of deadly force.  When an officer draws his firearm, it is because he fears grievous bodily harm or death, either for himself or for someone else.  When an officer has a shot at somebody who’s pointing a gun to a person’s head, there’s no discussion. He takes the shot. Most officers aren’t trained to “shoot to kill” or “shoot to wound”. We’re trained to stop the threat.  We don’t aim at the legs or arms of our intended target; we aim center mass.

  6. Paperwork. I understand that most writers, often by necessity, will avoid the drudgery of police work.  You have to remember that taking notes, writing reports, entering data are things that every officer must do.  After a big arrest or a shootout, mentioning that your protagonist is over his head in paperwork will give your readers a touch of realism.

  7. Only one or two officers raiding a compound.  I get it. Your protagonist must lead the charge.  Don’t make him an idiot, though.  Formulate a good reason why he can’t wait for backup. Be realistic. There’s a fine line between courage and stupidity.  Try not to cross it.

  8. Know your weapons. Get the guns right, please.  A pistol isn’t the same thing as a revolver.  A revolver has a cylinder with chambers that hold five or six rounds.  When you fire a revolver, the empty cartridges remain in their chambers.  A pistol is a semi-automatic handgun that uses a magazine to hold the ammunition.  Contrary to a revolver, a pistol will eject every empty cartridge.  You also need to know the effective range of the weapon.  There’s a big difference between the effective range of an MP-5 and an M-16.  They have different rates of fire too.  There are many books and Internet sites available to help you in your research.

  9. Way too many federal agents.  Thanks for the publicity, guys!  I love to read realistic stories about the FBI, DEA or the ATF.  But you have to understand that federal agents represent less than 1% of the law enforcement community of the United States.  Local police departments handle most murder, rape, and robbery cases. It would be very unusual for a federal agency to force its way into an investigation.  They’ll respond to a request of assistance, but local departments are more than capable of investigating their own cases.

I believe that research remains the key to good writing.  With a minimum of effort, many of these gaffes are easily avoidable.  Your book doesn’t need to be 100% accurate–but it does need to be credible.


About the Author…

SIMON GERVAIS was born in Montréal, Québec. He joined the Canadian military as an infantry officer and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1997. Assigned to the Infantry School in Gagetown, New Brunswick, he received extensive training in advanced reconnaissance and small-unit tactics.

Simon GervaisIn 2001, he became a federal agent. His first posting was in Toronto, where he served as a drug investigator. During this time, he worked on many international drug-related cases in close collaboration with his American colleagues from the DEA. However, in 2004, his career switched gears and he was placed with a federal anti-terrorism unit based in the Ottawa Region. During the following years, he was deployed in numerous European and Middle Eastern countries.

In 2009, he became a close-protection specialist tasked with guarding foreign heads of state visiting Canada. Among many others, he served on the protection details of Queen Elizabeth II, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President, Hu Jianto.

Simon, his wife and their two children divide their time between Ottawa and South Florida, which they consider their second home.

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