Book review: ‘Hollywood Hills’ by Joseph Wambaugh

Special to the Los Angeles Times

It’s Joseph Wambaugh’s world. Other crime writers just live in it.

Beginning with his 1971 novel, “The New Centurions,” and his 1973 nonfiction masterpiece, “The Onion Field,” the former Los Angeles Police Department detective all but created the modern L.A. police procedural. Wambaugh’s work chronicles the true lives of those involved in the dirty business of law and order, and has provided the foundational language, style and conventions for the countless writers who have tried, with mixed results, to follow in his footsteps.

" Hollywood Hills,” Wambaugh’s newest novel, is a cogent reminder that he remains on the beat, and as effective as ever.

LAPD Det. Nate Weiss is bored with the grind of police work and dreams of a career on the silver screen, or at least a day-player role on a one-hour drama. With no agent to do his bidding, Weiss must rely on off-duty security jobs to make connections.

When his manhandling of paparazzi at the Kodak Theatre catches the eye of a second-rate (or maybe third-rate) director, Weiss thinks it’s going to be his big break. Such is the allure of Hollywood. Even a grizzled cop like Weiss falls for its bunk. Instead of stardom, Weiss is drawn into a complicated scam that involves priceless art, a pricey widow and OxyContin-fueled teenagers looking for their own version of fame.

This is Wambaugh’s fourth book in a row set in the LAPD Hollywood Station, an outpost on the edge of show business where the cops carry SAG cards with their shield and arrange auditions around their investigation of serial killers and drug dealers. It’s a dangerous world, and a profoundly silly one too, with unlicensed superheroes cadging tourist change in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and young hopefuls obsessed with the likes of Paris Hilton, not so much for her “talent” but because they consider her a promising burglary victim.

As always, Wambaugh populates his world with vivid characters: Flotsam and Jetsam, cops who’d rather surf than patrol turf; Nigel Wickland, Beverly Hills art dealer and consummate phony; and Leona Brueger, a seductress supported by the estate of her late husband and the skill of her plastic surgeons.

Though some Wambaugh fans might wish he’d transfer from Hollywood Station and its sordid environs to more serious locales, these books seem to confirm what most of us secretly fear: In these tawdry times, all of L.A. has become as phony and cruel as Hollywood with all its attendant obsessions.

Behind the fun and glitz, Wambaugh finds rot everywhere — especially at the LAPD. Outsiders, in the form of the media, politicians and judges wielding consent decrees, all threaten to “bring down the proud, some would say, arrogant police department.” Whatever the cause of the department’s decline, Wambaugh takes it personally. He has always treated police work as a noble endeavor, flawed in practice but righteous in principle. His police characters are imperfect, but their most surprising trait remains empathy — for victims as well as for the perps. Having been a cop himself, Wambaugh has never forgotten the hearts that beat behind the bulletproof vests.

It’s easy to take Wambaugh for granted. He writes the way Astaire danced, with ease and confidence that comes from complete control of the material. He is like English historian Edward Gibbon, recording the rise and fall of a great empire. And, like Gibbon, he will be read long after those who follow him are forgotten. Authors such as James Ellroy rightly treat Wambaugh’s novels as their ur-texts, but few have managed to capture the truths that fill Wambaugh’s books. Wambaugh’s cops and robbers often do good as well as evil, not because they are saints or sinners, but because they are simply, and grandly, human.

Shapiro, a former federal prosecutor and adjunct law professor at USC Gould School of Law, is the executive producer of NBC’s “The Paul Reiser Show.”