THE SECRETS OF HARRY BRIGHT by Joseph Wambaugh (Morrow/Perigord: $17.95; 272 pp.)

Like Jack London, Joseph Wambaugh made himself a writer despite the odds against him. The outline of his career is well publicized. He was born in Pittsburgh, a policeman's son. The family background was solidly working class and Roman Catholic. When Joe was 14, they moved to Los Angeles. At 17, he joined the Marines. In 1960, he entered the LAPD and served on the force for 14 years, retiring with the rank of detective sergeant.

In the late 1960s, Wambaugh began to write short stories based on his police experience. These received no encouragement (least of all from his employer). But one editor accompanied the rejection note with the suggestion that he might try a full-length novel. In six months, Wambaugh--working furiously at night--produced "The New Centurions," the narrative of three young cops' disillusioning progress from the police academy to the 1965 Watts riot. This first novel established him as a best-selling author and an embittered champion of police rights.

Looking at the now sizable body of his writing, one can see certain preoccupations running through it. In the largest sense, he projects a vision of the irredeemably fallen state of man. Like Graham Greene, Wambaugh has taken as his motto, "Why this is hell, nor am I out of it." East Los Angeles serves the same function that Sierra Leone did for Greene in "The Heart of the Matter." It is a place where mankind cannot hide its nature--usually corrupt, often brutal and on occasion downright evil.

The policeman's view of life fits in with this bleak, lapsarian philosophy. For the cop, no one is presumed innocent--that luxury is left to the (usually soft) judge and jury. As a character in "The Secrets of Harry Bright" puts it, the first rule of law enforcement is that everyone is a suspect--even the old lady in the iron lung.

Wambaugh is loyal to his former profession, and his cops are decent men and women. But the role in which society casts them is intolerable. Society lets an area go to hell (literally), then expects an undermanned and overworked police force to uphold "law and order." Or it decrees some quite unworkable immigration policy and expects the San Diego border police to enforce it (the subject of Wambaugh's recent "Lines and Shadows"). Or, as in "The Onion Field," cockeyed (rather than blind) justice pardons the criminal and mercilessly crucifies the policeman.

Typically, Wambaugh's heroes buckle under the pressure of carrying out unrealistic duties in a real world. They are tormented, divorced, ulcerated, alcoholic. In extremis, like Sergeant Valnikov in "The Black Marble," they are zombies in uniform, "law-enforcement burnouts." The functioning members of the force sustain themselves on duty with the centurion's unquestioning code--"theirs but to do or die." Off duty, in "choir practice" or at the cop bar, they take refuge in hard-bitten humor at the absurdity of it all. Morally and spiritually exhausted, Wambaugh's cops dull their pain with booze, jokes and camaraderie. Sometimes they kill themselves.

"The Secrets of Harry Bright" is set in and around Palm Springs. Wambaugh has a sharp eye for the resort, with its 50 golf courses, 200 hotels and two bits of conversation: "Hot enough today?" "Where are we eating tonight?" In his recent fiction, he's become more interested in suspense, and the plot of this novel is an ingenious variation on the traditional locked-room whodunit. A young man's body is found shot in a burned-out Rolls-Royce in the desert. There are no clues, no leads. The victim's father recruits two street-smart Hollywood detectives to look into the case. One of them, Sidney Blackpool, is mourning the death of his addict son and is running on habit and a copious intake of Johnny Walker. His sidekick, Otto Stringer, is Sancho Panza to Blackpool's Quixote: fat, good-natured and indestructible. Their investigations lead to Harry Bright, a saintly police sergeant who has cracked up and lies catatonic and dying in a hospital ward. He too has recently lost a son in a plane crash. Appallingly, Bright picked up his son's disembodied face among the wreckage. His comrades' reaction is pure Wambaugh: "First one cop, then the other started to giggle. Soon they were cackling and losing control. They were doubled up and roaring just as an outraged news photographer saw them and snapped a photo." They laugh not from malice, but because there's no other way to handle it and still function. Of course, the outside world misunderstands.

At one level, "The Secrets of Harry Bright" treats the almost unbearably painful subject of paternal bereavement. But as usual with Wambaugh, the dominant flavor is black comedy as the detectives laconically wisecrack their way through encounters with the ritzy superannuated golf set, homicidal bikers and the small desert town police force of Mineral Springs. This far-flung outpost of law and order contains such types as Beavertail Bigelow, Anemic Annie, Wingnut and Prankster Frank--the author's familiar police zoo. Like most male action writers, Wambaugh prefers dialogue to description, and the cop talk in this novel is as good as anything he's done in the line: wonderfully rich in obscenity, wit and cynical world weariness. The unraveling of the murder mystery is both surprising and logical.

If the novel has a weakness, it's that Wambaugh gets rather more interested in local color and character than a crime writer perhaps should. But one could say the same thing about Raymond Chandler, a novelist in whose class Wambaugh surely belongs. Altogether, "The Secrets of Harry Bright" is a superb effort. If there's a better writer than Wambaugh working in (and on) Southern California, I can't think who it is.

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