If you've ever wondered how undercover cops manage to balance their "undercover personas" with their "real lives", William Queen answers the question in "Under and Alone" thusly: they don't.
In 1998, Queen, a Special Agent in the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, assumed the persona of "Billy St. John" and joined the Mongols outlaw motorcycle gang to gather evidence of the group's criminal activity. He spent 28 months undercover, rising from probate to fully patched-in member and eventually to the role of club treasurer.
In that position, he had access to evidence of the club's criminal activity, leading to the arrest and prosecution of 54 Mongols in four states.
Queen convincingly illustrates how all this came at some great emotional and personal cost.
Billy/William walked a narrow line. Becoming a trusted club member required opening "Billy's" life to the club; there had to be no hint that Queen existed.
The Mongols were suspicious of anyone new to their social circle. Club members tracked Billy's whereabouts and required that he be available to run errands or take off on a club road trip at a moment's notice.
Participating in club activities included taking part in criminal activities (vehicle theft, trading in stolen goods) and parties where marijuana and cocaine use were not only expected, but required as a test of allegiance to the club.
Agent Queen was expected to uphold the law and failing a drug test could result in an internal review that could get him yanked from the case, suspended or fired.
As a full club member, Billy was making real friends. Many of the Mongols were likable, blue-collar family men for whom the Mongols were a "second family".
Meanwhile, Queen's relationships were faltering; his children were relocated to another state for their safety and his girlfriend left him. Eventually, struggling to maintain his personal life and keep it separate from Billy's was harder than just becoming St. John full-time.
Queen's portrayals of the club's activities depict a group of people who are comfortable "just getting by": hanging out, running errands, stealing, getting drunk, getting high, getting laid, fighting, and sleeping it all off to do it again the next day.
Queen occasionally comes across as a little self-righteous and a little less than totally honest with the reader. He continually restates that his personal risk was motivated only by his mission was to crack the San Fernando Valley Mongols.
The Mongols' credibility (and that of the reader) is stretched beyond belief as Billy repeatedly generates excuses to avoid snorting a line of coke or hitting a joint.
It sometimes seemed as though Queen was so concerned with his image (or perhaps the strength of his testimony) that he was afraid to admit he participated in these activities. I believe readers would have understood that doing so was required to maintain his cover and perhaps save his life.
"Under and Alone" moves at a fast pace, aided by a fascinating story and a polished narrative. It will appeal to readers of true crime and police procedurals s well as those interested in motorcycle culture and motorcycle gangs.
Note: A film version of "Under and Alone" starring Mel Gibson has been in development since 2003. As of the time of this writing, it has not yet begun production. The story was also featured in the "Outlaw Bikers" documentary TV series.