Review: 'Hollywood Hills,' the latest thriller by Joseph Wambaugh

By Maureen Corrigan
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 12, 2010; 4:38 PM


By Joseph Wambaugh

Little, Brown. 356 pp. $26.99

What fun it is to read Joseph Wambaugh! His Hollywood Station police procedurals - peppered with the requisite gunshots and groin kicks, sleaze and sunshine - are word-drunk wonders. If James Joyce had imagined "Finnegans Wake" as a crime story (hmmm, not a bad idea since plot was never Joyce's strong suit), it might have turned out something like Wambaugh's latest suspense story, "Hollywood Hills."

Take this bit of nonsense verse lobbed between two of Wambaugh's cops, a duo nicknamed Flotsam and Jetsam, who are standing on Malibu Beach, where a photo shoot is taking place. The shoot features a thonged female model flanked by two male models ineptly posing as surfers. The hipster cops are sneering at the two faux surfers:

" 'I'm all dialed in to see what happens if the pair of rainbow donks actually hit the briny on their unwaxed legs.'

" 'Get your happy on, bro,' his partner said. 'Forget the two squids. Just wax up and enjoy the gymnosophical gyrations of that slammin' spanker.'

" Gymno . . . ?' said the tall surfer. Then, 'Dude, I hate it when you take community college classes and go all vocabu-lyrical instead of speaking everyday American English.' "

Rest assured that this bewildering syntax does straighten out some after the opening chapter, but Wambaugh clearly revels in catchy cop talk and overblown metaphors that make Raymond Chandler's similes seem sedate by comparison. "Hollywood Hills" would make the perfect last-minute holiday gift for any aging English majors out there who like their crime fiction lite and have fond memories of reading "Jabberwocky" out loud.

Wambaugh's plot is as loopy as his language is joyously loony. An ex-con named Raleigh Dibble has landed a comfortable job as a butler and cook to Leona Brueger, the widow of a cold-cuts tycoon whose mansion is perched in the exclusive neighborhood of the novel's title. Raleigh, like most crime noir saps, yearns for what's out of his reach. He meets his satanic tempter in Nigel Wickland, Leona's art dealer. During the ongoing Great Recession, sales have dropped off at Nigel's pricey art gallery, so Nigel, sensing Raleigh's restlessness, proposes that the men team up and substitute digitalized copies for some of Leona's more expensive paintings. As the plan progresses, Raleigh, wisely, gets cold feet:

"His thoughts kept returning to the months he'd spent in federal prison [for writing bad checks], where he'd met several inmates who had served very hard time in state penitentiaries. One of them had told Raleigh that comparing Club Fed to state prison was like comparing hemorrhoids to colon cancer, and the inmate was a man who had suffered both."

Meanwhile, a gang of teenage burglars known as the "Bling Ring" is breaking into the mansions of young celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Orlando Bloom. The tabloid accounts of the audacious exploits of these teen thugs fire up the imagination of a young parking attendant named Jonas and his sort-of girlfriend, Megan - both OxyContin addicts. Jonas and Megan begin cruising the Hollywood Hills to sniff out a promising property to burgle and, you guessed it, Leona Brueger's mansion strikes them as ripe for the pillaging.

As all plotlines converge at the mansion, the LAPD cops who call Hollywood Station home base are busy with some extraneous distractions like shutting down a goth house party and chasing pickpockets outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre. As ever, Wambaugh is alert to the ugly realities of police work, but overall "Hollywood Hills" is much more screwball than sinister. Throughout the novel, for instance, a female rookie named Britney is treated to some insider "cop-style girl talk" by an older sister-in-arms:

" 'Don't go to work without shaving your legs. How'd you like it if a gossipy ER nurse told some of the Watch Five coppers about your stubble? You just know they'd all start calling you "cactus legs." '

" 'No cactus legs,' the rookie said, 'Got it.'

" 'And don't wear an underwire bra under your vest. I tried to take the vest off Millie Boyle after she got rear-ended in a TC at Hollywood and Vine, right before we put her into the RA. And her goddamn padded underwire bra popped off like it was spring-loaded.'

" 'No underwire bra. Okay, boss,' Britney said cheerfully. 'This is real good information to have.' "

Wambaugh's "Hollywood Hills" doesn't offer profound insights into the evil that lurks in the human heart. Instead, this series serves up something perhaps even more welcome as the drear days of winter settle in: an absurdist take on crime, as well as plotlines and sentences that perform buoyant loop-de-loops all over the page before making flawless landings.

Corrigan is the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air." She teaches literature at Georgetown University.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company