What in heaven or on earth has a Russian sub embarrassingly aground in Swedish territorial waters got to do with the strung-out cops of the Rampart Division of the Los Angeles Police Department? Quite a lot, you will be entertained to find out as you pursue Joseph Wambaugh, a former LAPD detective turned best-selling spinner of police procedurals, through the back alleys of his metropolis and, for good measure, the laboratories and watering holes favored by students and faculty at the California Institute of Technology.
Wambaugh's cops hate Democrats, affirmative action, blacks, Mexicans, Koreans, boat people from Vietnam, Jerry Brown, Mayor Bradley and lesser politicians. The list, of course, is incomplete. One of the novel's more baroque creations, the Bad Czech, a huge specimen with appetites to match for violence, women and alcohol, cherishes an especially vehement grudge against California Chief Justice Rose Bird and the rest of the "supremes." An equally lovable character is Ludwig, a 130-pound Rottweiler, largest of the LAPD's K-9 unit. Ludwig, well taught by his human partner Hans, enjoys a good glass of beer, or several, at Leery's, the grubby bar where off-duty cops congregate to share their troubles. In this aptly dubbed House of Misery, they ingest astounding quantities of booze, complain of an edict against choke holds and talk dirty. It is only to be expected that the men hate the presence as equals of women colleagues and do their best to turn them into sex objects. For their part, the women fight back by drinking as hard, talking as foully and acting as violently as their macho colleagues.
One of the women, nicknamed Jane Wayne by the Bad Czech, stood "over six feet tall and had good upper-body strength and legs that could crush a beer keg." She earned the respect of her male colleagues when "three nights after graduation from the police academy, she choked out a combative trucker who thought he could drive a sixteen wheeler across the water in McArthur Park right onto Duckie Island."
Dilford and his partner, Dolly, share a taste for viewing eviscerated corpses in the police morgue. Theirs is a happy team. Dolly cheats enthusiastically on her accountant husband.
Marital fidelity is nearly as rare in Ramparts Division as membership in the American Civil Liberties Union. Mario Villalobos, "Delta Star's" burned-out hero, was married and divorced twice. One son ignores Mario's existence. The other hates him as a change from hating himself. No wonder Mario has become a vodka martini man--hold the olive, hold the vermouth.
Wambaugh admires his policemen. He pauses more than once to justify their anarchic ways as natural reactions to the dangers and loneliness of their daily routine. Their subculture is that of men and now--worse luck--women who depend upon one another to survive each day's encounters with the unknown and terrifying. Like other combat veterans they stay with one another off duty because only front-line warriors know what it's like.
The suitably baffling plot concerns the murder of a seedy private eye and a prostitute known as Miss Moonbeam. Wambaugh plays fair. The clues are there, and Mario Villalobos with a bit of help from Cal Tech interprets them correctly. You will be relieved to discover that the Russians don't get away with it. What the "it" is I cannot in good faith reveal.
This is the best Wambaugh I have encountered. It deserves to sell the customary ton of copies. The dialogue crackles and the folkways of Cal Tech are rendered as plausibly and considerably more satirically than those of Rampart Division. Although it is possible to admire types like the Bad Czech less than Wambaugh does, he does render understandable the man's murder of an especially vicious mugger. Beneath rough exteriors a foot or two deep, cops are sentimental folks. It hurts the Bad Czech to see an old doll batted around like a tetherball. He sits by the hour by the bedside of his brutally beaten Korean colleague Sunney Kee, trying to bring him to consciousness.
The confrontation between cops and scientists is hilariously handled. I should not end without noting the existence of characters like Rumpled Ronald, certain that something dreadful dreadful will happen to him in his last two days of active duty before retirement, the Bad Czech's cynical black partner Cecil Higgins, Leery himself and Ludwig's friend Gertie, who meets a sad fate. It's a lot more credible, all of it, than the latest episode of "Hill Street Blues."