Joseph WAMBAUGH is one of those Los Angeles authors whose popular success always has overshadowed his importance as a writer.
His fans will find “Hollywood Crows” -- the second novel in two years set in that surreal neighborhood’s police station -- as entertaining as ever, while readers who have followed Wambaugh’s fascinating 37-year career will savor a book whose flaws are not only engaging but also redolent with promise. At 71, the author appears to have tired of picking up lifetime achievement awards and to have opened a new chapter in his own literary story.
That’s an entirely welcome event, because Wambaugh is an important writer not simply because he’s ambitious and technically accomplished, but also because he “owns” a critical slice of L.A.'s literary real estate: the Los Angeles Police Department -- not just its inner workings, but also its relationship to the city’s political establishment and to its intricately enmeshed social classes. There is no other American metropolis whose civic history is so inextricably intertwined with the history of its police department. That alone would make Wambaugh’s work significant, but the importance of his best fiction and nonfiction is amplified by his unequaled ability to capture the nuances of the LAPD’s isolated and essentially Hobbesian tribal culture.
The reforming chief William H. Parker set out to make his department a unique institution, one separate and apart from both the city’s political institutions and the communities it policed. He succeeded spectacularly. As a former detective sergeant who spent 14 years on the force, Wambaugh comes by his knowledge of that success -- and its consequences -- the hard way. Thus, his books on the department instinctively and, therefore, unobtrusively convey the way in which LAPD patrol officers seem constantly at odds with their commanders and the whole force appears locked in never-ending antagonism with City Hall. Meanwhile, for the officers on the street, the day-to-day grind of policing remains a nearly run race between stubborn but well-concealed idealism and far-too-intimate contact with far too much of badly fallen mankind.
Like Irish playwright John Synge, Wambaugh is “a rooted man” -- though, uniquely, he’s rooted not just in a place, Los Angeles, but also in one institution critical to that geography, the LAPD.
Most writers would be content to make a career from that franchise, but Wambaugh’s formal ambitions always have set him apart from even the top-flight of police procedural and “true crime” writers. Born a policeman’s son in East Pittsburgh, he joined the Marines at 17 and the LAPD soon after he left the Corps. Ex-Marine, Catholic, married young, a cop’s pedigree, Wambaugh was straight from Central Casting -- except for the string of night school college degrees that culminated in a master of arts from Cal State LA.
Starting in 1971, while still on the force, Wambaugh published “The New Centurions” and “The Blue Knight” in quick succession. Together, they marked a turning point in so-called “hard-boiled” and “police procedural” novels. Wambaugh’s characters were cops but they were also entangled in civil service with all the soul-abrading frictions that such contact entails. They were “tough” but not invulnerable in the old hard-boiled sense. They experienced terrible things and paid for it in a variety of credible ways.
Other, similarly innovative books followed. “The Onion Field,” clearly written under the influence of Truman Capote’s nonfiction classic, “In Cold Blood,” was and remains a masterpiece. That book “made me a real writer,” Wambaugh once said. Three more LAPD novels -- “The Choirboys,” “The Black Marble” and “The Glitter Dome” -- took a compelling turn toward black comedy, which Wambaugh frankly credited to his reading of Joseph Heller. As Wambaugh put it, “Heller enabled me to find my voice.” Eleven other novels and works of nonfiction followed, including one involving a celebrated English murder case that was among the first to point to the emerging importance of DNA evidence. Finally, in 2006, Wambaugh returned to LAPD with his first novel in more than a decade, “Hollywood Station.”
Fans of that book will find many of their favorite characters back for a series of star turns in “Hollywood Crows,” including the two surfer cops dubbed “Flotsam” and “Jetsam” by their comrades as well as Hollywood Nate Weiss, who still is hoping to leave LAPD behind for an acting career.
This time, the action focuses on the station’s community relations officers -- CROs, which inevitably becomes “crows.” This is a new kind of police work for Wambaugh: time spent at meetings with angry landlords and street people, or picking up complaints from hillside residents worried that the homeless encampment upslope will ignite a brush fire. Most of the plot centers on the ways in which various Hollywood station cops and a full cast of beautifully drawn petty criminals intersect with a nightclub owner of Middle Eastern origin, Ali Aziz, and his soon-to-be ex-wife, the beautiful Margot. (The real-life Eddie Nash clearly is the model here.) Wambaugh is fond of that sort of roman a clef, and Hollywood Nate breakfasts at the Farmers Market every morning so that he can read the trades and eavesdrop on a bunch of writers and directors who bear an uncanny resemblance to the legendary breakfast group that includes David Freeman, Roger L. Simon and other writers and directors. It’s a nice touch and one of the many knowing social and geographic ones Wambaugh weaves through his narrative. Aziz’s home, for example, is on Mount Olympus in the Hollywood Hills, home to many upwardly mobile Russian, Armenian and Middle Eastern entrepreneurs.
It would spoil the plot to give too much of the back and forth away, but let’s just say there’s a tragic story of loss and one of redemption at the end of a darkly convoluted and murderous path -- and neither is expected. There’s also a new enemy for Wambaugh’s cops, the federal consent decree under which the LAPD has been working since the Rampart scandal. The author doesn’t like it and neither do his cops and their resentment is part of the story’s background noise -- as it is, in fact, in many LAPD stations today. Still, Wambaugh is too honest and careful an observer not to represent the LAPD as a changed institution and three of this novel’s best cops are women, one of them a Korean American. Clearly, this isn’t Parker’s department, Daryl Gates’ nor even Bernard Parks’.
An ensemble of wonderfully drawn characters, both major and minor, always has been a strength of Wambaugh’s novels and, if “Hollywood Crows” has a shortcoming, it’s that the author seemed unwilling to assign any of this book’s characters the major role. The narrative suffers somewhat because it lacks a single dramatic persona to act as its focus, as if the author was unwilling to choose between his characters. It’s a flaw only in the sense that it slows the narrative propulsion -- though hardly the enjoyment of a well-told and emotionally moving story.
This preference for the ensemble over the single main character simply may reflect Wambaugh’s success with and fondness for television and screen writing. A careful reader, however, may wonder if a full-blown comedy of manners might not be in the offing?