Wambaugh still a force with fiction

Special to The Times

Before James Ellroy gave up a life of petty crime and booze to write his seminal L.A. crime novels, before Michael Connelly discovered the work of Raymond Chandler that would influence his iconic Harry Bosch novels, Joseph Wambaugh was telling stories of the LAPD from the inside out.

His first novel, “The New Centurions,” was published 35 years ago, while he was still a sworn LAPD officer. Ever since, critics have been effusive with their praise. Evan Hunter (who under the pseudonym Ed McBain had already written more than two dozen “87th Precinct” novels) urged in a 1981 New York Times book review of “The Glitter Dome”: “Let us dispel forever the notion that Mr. Wambaugh is only a former cop who happens to write books; this would be tantamount to saying that Jack London was first and foremost a sailor. Mr. Wambaugh is, in fact, a writer of genuine power, style, wit and originality, who has chosen to write about the police in particular as a means of expressing his views on society in general.”

Maybe Wambaugh’s world view and gift for storytelling came from his father, also a cop. Surely his views were refined in the cop bars and squad cars where officers trade stories the way fishermen talk trash about the one that got away. And several years spent creating, consulting and writing scripts for the television drama “Police Story” and film adaptations of his nonfiction bestseller “The Onion Field” and novel “The Black Marble” clearly had their influence.


Whatever the inspiration or source material, Wambaugh used them to good advantage in writing five works of nonfiction and 11 novels featuring the men (and eventually the women) of the Los Angeles Police Department and beyond. But while his last book was 2002’s “Fire Lover,” a nonfiction account of the infamous Glendale fire captain and serial arsonist John Leonard Orr, Wambaugh has not written a novel since 1996’s “Floaters,” used Hollywood as the setting for a novel since “The Glitter Dome” or written about the LAPD at all since 1983’s “The Delta Star.” Much has changed in the intervening years, which raises the question of whether the 69-year-old Wambaugh can keep up with the times.

It’s a question one would never have asked of crime masters such as the late McBain or still-active Donald Westlake, prolific contemporaries of Wambaugh’s. But McBain’s 87th Precinct or the settings of Westlake’s caper novels have not undergone the tumultuous changes witnessed in the LAPD, subject of numerous scandals and a federal consent decree in recent years. Given the impact of such forces, it ain’t the same job-with-a-capital-J that Wambaugh left in 1974.

Yet in reading “Hollywood Station,” his latest novel, it is clear that neither Wambaugh’s longtime fans, LAPD watchers nor a generation of new readers will be disappointed. For one thing, Wambaugh’s cast of heroes -- which in his earlier novels was dominated by the young Turks and old war horses of LAPD Chief William H. Parker’s fabled “thin blue line” -- has expanded to include more females, minorities, immigrants, even thirtysomething surfer dudes nicknamed Jetsam and Flotsam who open the novel with a rambling, politically incorrect conversation about everything from ex-wives (“She was Druid-like but not as cuddly”) to Latinos ("[T]hey got the mayor’s office now and they’re about one generation away from reclaiming California and making us do the gardening”), a conversation conducted before getting their expandable batons out of their “war bags” to play a particularly vicious game called “pit bull polo” that is sure to make the Humane Society cry foul.

But if they can’t take the non-PC heat, the Humane Society, the ACLU and other groups would be wise not to enter Wambaugh’s fictional kitchen, because “Hollywood Station’s” stew of cops and detectives curse, cheat on their spouses (with sometimes hilarious consequences) and make racist and sexist comments (but not toward one another, under threat of suspension in the new LAPD).

What unites these coppers is their love for the Job and one another, a love nurtured by a 46-year veteran sergeant nicknamed the Oracle. Now 68, the Oracle could have had a walk-on role in Wambaugh’s “The New Centurions” or “The Blue Knight,” two novels of LAPD’s “rock ‘n’ rule” era where the cops were noble but had an edge that could cut. But like a fine wine, the intervening years have smoothed the Oracle’s rough edges, allowing the complexity to surface as he dispenses words of wisdom, shepherds traumatized cops to Cedars-Sinai’s emergency room and pairs officers for deployment into the field.

Sometimes the Oracle’s matches are inspired, like teaming Jetsam with Flotsam, and other times more difficult to comprehend, like the pairing of a 34-year veteran like Fausto Gamboa, son of Latino immigrants, with Budgie Polk, a 27-year-old new mother whose breast pump in her war bag is about to drive the senior officer insane. In the hands of a lesser writer, Fausto and Budgie would remain battling stereotypes, but Wambaugh gives their relationship both a sharpness and arc that are genuinely moving, as are the stories of the other women assigned to the station.

Wambaugh does an equally good job of showing the other side of Tinseltown in “Hollywood Station’s” gallery of tweakers (methamphetamine addicts), homeless musicians and Russian immigrants, all of whose crimes have such an authentic ring that readers will think twice before approaching a costumed character in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre or dropping mail in a blue USPS mailbox.

And while the minor crimes and misdemeanors of two of them, tweakers Farley Ramsdale and his girlfriend, Olive, seem belabored in the early chapters, as do some of the cops’ cases and anecdotes, Wambaugh’s skill in connecting them all to an immigrant hustler’s jewel theft and the subsequent murder of an ATM security guard is worthy of comparison to the best writing of McBain and Westlake.

James Ellroy, Wambaugh wrote in an essay in The Times last month, “convinced me ... that someone had to write a novel about the current LAPD, and that I ... was the one who could do it justice, who could understand how so many things have changed but how some things never do.” And true to Ellroy’s exhortation, Wambaugh’s novel is brimming with sadness and nostalgia for not necessarily the bad-good old days but for a time when doing good police work, in the words of the Oracle, “is more fun than anything you’ll ever do in your entire lives.”

So thanks to Ellroy for throwing down the gauntlet and Joseph Wambaugh for picking it up and producing “Hollywood Station,” a deeply felt paean to those who protect and serve under the most trying conditions that also proves that there’s one veteran of the LAPD crime scene who can still run with the best of them.


Paula L. Woods is a critic and the author of the Charlotte Justice mystery series, including the most recent, “Strange Bedfellows.”