Black humor is the match that closet idealists strike to keep the real darkness at bay.
"Hollywood Moon" is the third in the series of novels Joseph Wambaugh has set in LAPD's Hollywood station -- and, by far, the best in the sequence. A meticulously realistic re-creation of cops' daily and, more important, inner lives has been a hallmark of this engagingly accomplished writer since he first burst on the literary scene with his 1971 bestseller, "The New Centurions." Another LAPD novel and a stunning work of nonfiction later -- "The Onion Field," second only to Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" as the finest true crime book written in English -- Wambaugh's fiction took a bracing turn into black comedy with "The Choirboys." (One longs to quote its matchless last sentences, but this newspaper's standards prevent it.)
Wambaugh went on to hone that darkly cutting sensibility in a series of what might be termed "comedies of manners with mayhem" set in such carefully observed and skillfully evoked settings as Pasadena's dog show set, San Diego's America's Cup racing scene and Palm Springs' lavish second homes and restricted country clubs. The experience of those books lent his fiction a masterfully confident air when he returned to the Los Angeles Police Department, where he once labored as a detective sergeant, with the first of the Hollywood station novels.
It's not necessary to have read the others to enjoy "Hollywood Moon," but it helps to appreciate the skill with which Wambaugh manages what now amounts to a kind of cinematic ensemble cast of characters -- think John Ford after a bottle of Jameson garnished with crystal meth. "Hollywood" Nate Weiss, the smart cop and disappointed aspiring actor, is back, as is his partner, the dauntingly effective Dana Vaughn, who can't seem to decide whether she finds the small-time bad guys or her male colleagues more exasperating.
Also back for a series of star turns are Flotsam and Jetsam, the two Malibu-based surfer cops who regard police work as a series of dating and practical joke opportunities. Even the Oracle, the station's legendarily jaded and wise sergeant -- who died of a heart attack in an earlier book -- returns in memory and spirit.
The crooks are the best of the series. Dewey and Eunice -- a pair of high-tech scam artists -- are the model for a new kind of con artist, playing as much on technology as on credulity. Malcolm Rojas is as chillingly realistic a sexual predator as you're likely to meet in contemporary crime fiction.
All these somehow deeply human characters will find their lives improbably and inextricably intertwined on the equally improbable Hollywood streets.
Here's how the long-suffering Sgt. Lee Murillo -- inheritor of the Oracle's mantle -- sends his troops out for a night's policing: "Ladies and Gentlemen and those of you who do not fit either category, I have an announcement to make. . . . There is a real Hollywood moon tonight. As you know, a full moon over Hollywood brings out the beast rather than the best in our citizens. The car that comes back with the weirdest encounter of the night will get an extra-large pizza with the works." (There's no way to do justice here to the case of double necrophilia at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery that wins that pizza.)
His officers also are reminded that "post-op transsexuals will be searched by female officers, pre-op by male officers. Booking in either the men's or women's jail will also depend upon their medical status and condition. And you will not refer to Santa Monica Blvd. as Sodom-Monica because of the number of male prostitutes there."
Among Wambaugh's particular strengths as a writer is his ability to blend two uniquely L.A. sensibilities: those of noir fiction and the classic screenplay. That's natural enough, since after 14 novels and dozens of screenplays and episodic television scripts, he's a master of both genres. His evocation of Hollywood taco stands with their unforgiving fluorescent lights and flaking Frogtown bungalows is pitch perfect; similarly, he understands the narrative propulsion that comes from economically sketched visual portraits and dialogue crisp as a CAA agent's starched cuff.
In this novel's Dewey and Eunice, he's given us a whole new -- and yet, wonderfully traditional -- take on contemporary, post-feminist Hollywood grifters: "The next day was to be the most momentous in his life. At such a moment, he could face and admit who Dewey Gleason really was: failed actor, failed screenwriter, mediocre forger and thief. At such a time, all denial was stripped away. He thought of his brother and sister in Seattle, a civil engineer and a schoolteacher. Both had spouses and children and were ostensibly happy, yet he'd always felt he was smarter and more accomplished than either of them. For years he'd blamed his failures on the show-business bug that bit him during his high school years. Then later, he'd decided it wasn't a bug, it was a . . . vampire bat that sucked Seattle right out of him and eventually steered him to Hollywood. And this was where it would all finally end, one way or the other. . . . As he faced his 50th birthday in extreme desperation, he felt old, as old as original sin. Dewey knew that his plan could lead to extreme violence. And that made him get out of bed before daybreak and make his fourth trip to the bathroom."
One of the things that sets Wambaugh's cops and crooks apart from those in so many other mysteries and police procedurals is that he fixes both firmly in the same realistic social context. There, they share a kind of moral vertigo -- a sense of events and feelings spinning out of control and toward disintegration. Things, however, never settle into a facile -- which is to say, cynical -- moral equivalency. Cops and crooks may inhabit the same twisting streets and even share a common fondness for excitement and the well-shaved corner. The difference is that the cops, even in disillusion, retain something decent to which they can cling, something unspoken about their vocation that anchors them and prevents them from being swept into the vortex.
That constant is the spine that runs through "Hollywood Moon," as it has through all Wambaugh's LAPD novels. It's what allows you to find the black humor genuinely funny and to experience these masterful novels as something more than entertainment.