Joseph Wambaugh, who is pushing 75 now, has been acclaimed as a writer of both novels and nonfiction about police and crime in Los Angeles for nearly 40 years. While still at work as a detective sergeant in 1971, his first novel, The New Centurions, was published. It was nearly that long ago (1973) when I first read The Onion Field, his true-crime story of the kidnapping of two L.A. police officers and its profoundly sad consequences. Though most of Wambaugh’s work has been fiction, it was only a few years ago that he returned to writing novels about the LAPD. First came Hollywood Station in 2007, followed in 2008 and 2009 by two closely related novels, Hollywood Crows and Hollywood Moon. Perhaps more are on the way in this outstanding series of books.
Wambaugh is superbly talented. His ear for dialogue, his psychological insight, his knowledge about both criminals and police, his gift of language — all become unmistakably clear in these three engrossing novels. He has mastered the craft of writing fiction, but these books transcend craft with credible, full-bodied characters and graceful style.
What is most compelling in this saga of the men and women of Hollywood Station are the recurring characters. Read these books, and you’ll come to know and appreciate the two surfer cops, known only as Flotsam and Jetsam. For example, Jetsam says to his partner about a bowling alley that has come up in one of many conversations about how the two surfers can meet women, “I mean, there’s gotta be opportunities on those lanes for coppers as coolaphonic and hormonally imaginative as the almost four hundred pounds of male heat riding in this car.” And that’s one of the more easily understood passages in Flotsam and Jetsam’s never-ending dialogue. Then there’s Hollywood Nate Weiss, an aspiring actor with a love for mirrors and hopes for a SAG card; The Oracle, a 46-year veteran sergeant with the insight of a sensitive psychiatrist; a Ukranian-immigrant detective whose inventive use of the English language would do Mrs. Malaprop proud; and several strong, smart women officers, all struggling to keep their pride and their patience in a blatantly sexist environment.
And those are just the cops! The miscreants include street people like Trombone Teddy, formerly a well-known jazz sideman; crystal meth “tweakers” and other addicts, many of them eking out a meager existence by wearing Batman, Superman, Hulk, or Spiderman costumes and cadging tips from camera-wielding tourists near Graumann’s Chinese Theater; and the ex-cons and other ambitious operators whose imaginative schemes are the stuff of the clever plots in these three novels. In fact, you’ll probably learn more than enough about the identity-theft scams and other cons Wambaugh describes to scare the living daylights out of you.
3 responses to “Joseph Wambaugh’s Hollywood Police Saga”
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