Justice means different things to different people, a truth author Daniel Friedman wrestles with in his powerful novel Running Out of Road. To Baruch “Buck” Schatz, a long-retired, much-decorated Memphis police detective who didn’t shy away from physical persuasion in his day, it was simple: arrest (or otherwise impair) the bad guy, then let the legal system sort him out. Being a Jewish cop in 50s Memphis, where some of his bosses were K.K.K. members, Schatz’s survival depended on being the baddest, the toughest, the best.
Now 90, Schatz uses a walker, has creeping Alzheimer’s, and lives in an assisted-living facility. But he’s nobody’s fool and still full of vinegar when he learns that Carlos Watkins, the African-American host of an NPR show that examines abuses of the American justice system, is revisiting one of Schatz’s old cases, involving a white serial killer named Chester March, who’s about to be executed at 80. The show focuses on the barbarity of the death penalty, though Watkins acknowledges that March may be guilty. Schatz refuses to cooperate with Watkins, who has developed an ideologue’s fondness for March as a doomed symbol of a “coercive system.” Which is ironic, given that one of March’s victims was a black prostitute and his family were cotton growers. As for Schatz, he admits that his dealings with March were sometimes brutal, but his conscience is clear—there’ll be no restorative justice or hugging it out for this old man.