Wambaugh's thin, blue and blurry line
Monday, December 7, 2009
By Joseph Wambaugh
Little, Brown. 344 pp. $26.99
In the early 1970s, a Los Angeles police detective named Joseph Wambaugh won an enduring place for himself in the annals of American crime writing. First, in 1971, when he was 34, Wambaugh published a best-selling novel called "The New Centurions" that portrayed American cops as they'd rarely, if ever, been seen before. Nothing in Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series or TV police shows like "Dragnet" had prepared readers for the hard-drinking, skirt-chasing, foul-mouthed, cynical policemen in "The New Centurions." It and later Wambaugh bestsellers such as "The Choirboys" (1975) were police novels as grim comedy. Thanks to Wambaugh's credibility as a working cop (he served 14 years before leaving to write full time), his early novels were a revelation, one that had a huge influence on hundreds of ultra-realistic police sagas that followed.
In 1973, having made his name writing about those wild and crazy boys in blue, Wambaugh shifted gears dramatically and wrote a masterpiece of true-crime reporting, "The Onion Field." It told the somber, all-too-real story of two Los Angeles policemen who were disarmed and kidnapped by two petty criminals. The punks drove their prisoners to the isolated onion field of the title, where they shot and killed one of the policemen. The other managed to escape. The killers were soon captured and tried for murder. The surviving policeman, an entirely decent young man, returned to duty and found himself scorned and mercilessly criticized by his fellow officers for the sin of having let himself be disarmed. It's been more than 30 years since I read "The Onion Field," and I still vividly remember the heartbreaking scene when the disgraced policeman comes within an inch of suicide and holds back only because of his love for his infant daughter.
Wambaugh has continued to write both fiction and nonfiction, and for the movies and television, and in 2004 he was named a grand master by the Mystery Writers of America. Since 2006, he has written three novels about cops stationed in Hollywood: "Hollywood Station," "Hollywood Crows" and now "Hollywood Moon." In the new novel, Wambaugh juggles three plot lines. One line introduces eight or 10 Hollywood cops and shows their rivalries, friendships, flirtations (some are women) and bizarre adventures. In a second plot line, a troubled young man begins stalking and attacking women. Finally, we meet a middle-aged couple who operate a lucrative scam that mostly involves stolen credit cards. The shrewish wife is the brains of the operation; her long-suffering husband wants to kill her but can't because he doesn't know where she's hidden their money. The three plot lines converge when the police start to close in on the young would-be rapist, who has meanwhile gone to work for the two credit-card scammers and is plotting to rob them.
All this is not without interest. The details of the credit-card operation are interesting, and the falling out among the various thieves offers some laughs. But what really dominates the novel is dozens of disconnected, supposedly funny stories of cop life. On the opening page, we meet two "surfer cops," known as Flotsam and Jetsam, who are talking about another cop who supposedly hires a midget to go bowling with him because it makes it easier to pick up girls. We encounter a 350-pound woman who is sitting naked in a Laundromat while the cops take pictures to post on the Web. There are flatulence stories ("fanny burps") and the unrepeatable tale of some junkies who have their way with corpses in a funeral home. There's a fellow who's caught having sex of sorts with a Barbie doll and a man and woman found coupling in an alley who insist this wasn't prostitution but "a spontaneous expression of love." We learn that cocaine is known in some circles as "booger sugar" and that it is politically incorrect for a cop to refer to a transsexual as a "tranny." We endure inane jokes (in an upscale neighborhood, a cop notes, "people wave at you with all five fingers") and some seriously offensive lines ("Whadda people in New Orleans do in their spare time besides drown?").
Wambaugh has said that, because he used up all his own cop stories decades ago, his primary method of research nowadays is to bring several working cops together for drinks and dinner and to take notes on the tales they tell. He needs to get back on the beat. This novel is overwhelmed by stories that probably sounded hilarious after four or five drinks but on the page are variously dumb, tasteless, pointless and boring as hell.
Near the end of the book, in a stab at seriousness, Wambaugh kills off someone we'd rather not see dead; the episode is nicely done, and we are briefly moved. But after this taste of tragedy, we soon revert to Flotsam and Jetsam and the prospect of using a midget to pick up girls in the bowling alley. If you want to read Wambaugh, do yourself a favor and seek out "The Onion Field." It's a great book, the one he will be remembered for, and well worth your time.
Anderson reviews thrillers and mysteries regularly for The Post.