THE ENTERTAINMENT CRITIC BOOK REVIEW, BY JAMES MYERS
By Joseph Wambaugh
Published by: Little, Brown & Company
Publication Date: March, 2008
Four Star Rating ****
JOSEPH ALOYSIUS WAMBAUGH, JR. (BORN JANUARY 22, 1937, IN EAST PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA) IS AN AMERICAN WRITER KNOWN FOR HIS FICTIONAL AND NON-FICTIONAL ACCOUNTS OF POLICE WORK IN THE UNITED STATES.
SERVED 14 YEARS IN THE LOS ANGELES POLICE DEPARTMENT
WAMBAUGH'S UNIQUE PERSPECTIVE ON THE REALITIES OF POLICE WORK LED TO HIS FIRST NOVEL, THE NEW CENTURIONS, WHICH WAS PUBLISHED EARLY IN 1971 TO CRITICAL ACCLAIM AND POPULAR SUCCESS. THE SUCCESS OF THE EARLY BOOKS HAPPENED WHILE WAMBAUGH WAS STILL WORKING IN THE DETECTIVE DIVISION. HE REPORTEDLY REMARKED "I WOULD HAVE GUYS IN HANDCUFFS ASKING ME FOR AUTOGRAPHS." SOON TURNING TO WRITING FULL-TIME, WAMBAUGH WAS PROLIFIC AND POPULAR STARTING IN THE 1970S, MIXING NOVELS (THE BLUE KNIGHT, THE CHOIRBOYS, THE BLACK MARBLE) WITH NONFICTION ACCOUNTS OF CRIME AND DETECTION A.K.A. "TRUE CRIME" (THE ONION FIELD). LATER BOOKS INCLUDED THE GLITTER DOME (A TV-MOVIE ADAPTATION STARRED JAMES GARNER AND JOHN LITHGOW), THE DELTA STAR, AND LINES AND SHADOWS.
HIS TRADEMARK IS GRITTY POLICE CHARACTERS THAT HAVE HEROIC FLAWS
MANY OF HIS BOOKS WERE MADE INTO FEATURE FILMS OR TV-MOVIES DURING THE 70S AND 80S. THE BLUE KNIGHT, A NOVEL FOLLOWING THE APPROACHING RETIREMENT AND LAST WORKING DAYS OF AGING VETERAN BEAT COP "BUMPER" MORGAN, WAS MADE INTO AN EMMY-WINNING 1973 TV MINISERIES STARRING WILLIAM HOLDEN AND LATER A SHORT-LIVED TV SERIES STARRING GEORGE KENNEDY. HIS REALISTIC APPROACH TO POLICE DRAMA WAS HIGHLY INFLUENTIAL IN BOTH FILM AND TELEVISION DEPICTIONS (SUCH AS HILL STREET BLUES) FROM THE MID-70S ONWARD.
WAMBAUGH WAS ALSO INVOLVED WITH CREATING/DEVELOPING THE NBC SERIES POLICE STORY, WHICH RAN FROM 1973 TO 1977. THE ANTHOLOGY SHOW COVERED THE DIFFERENT ASPECTS OF POLICE WORK (PATROL, DETECTIVE, UNDERCOVER, ETC.) IN THE LAPD WITH STORY IDEAS AND CHARACTERS SUPPOSEDLY INSPIRED BY OFF-THE-RECORD TALKS WITH ACTUAL POLICE OFFICERS. AT TIMES THE SHOW'S CHARACTERS ALSO DEALT WITH PROBLEMS NOT USUALLY SEEN OR ASSOCIATED WITH TYPICAL TV COP SHOWS, SUCH AS ALCOHOL ABUSE, ADULTERY, AND BRUTALITY. THE SHOW HAD A BRIEF REVIVAL ON ABC DURING THE 1988-1989 SEASON.
WAMBAUGH WAS ALSO INVOLVED IN THE PRODUCTION OF THE ACCLAIMED FILM VERSIONS OF THE ONION FIELD (1979) AND THE BLACK MARBLE (1980), BOTH DIRECTED BY HAROLD BECKER. IN 1981, HE WON AN EDGAR AWARD FROM THE MYSTERY WRITERS OF AMERICA FOR HIS SCREENPLAY FOR THE LATTER FILM. THIS WAS AFTER THE CHOIRBOYS FILM ADAPTATION HAD MET WITH VERY POOR CRITICAL AND AUDIENCE RECEPTION A FEW YEARS EARLIER. INTERESTINGLY, ALL THREE FILMS FEATURED PERFORMANCES BY THEN YOUNG UP-AND-COMING ACTOR JAMES WOODS.
ONE OF WAMBAUGH'S MOST FAMOUS NONFICTION BOOKS IS THE BLOODING, WHICH TELLS THE STORY BEHIND HOW AN EARLY LANDMARK CASE INVOLVING DNA FINGERPRINTING HELPED SOLVE TWO MURDERS IN LEICESTER, ENGLAND, RESULTING IN THE ARREST AND CONVICTION OF COLIN PITCHFORK.
IN 2003, FIRE LOVER: A TRUE STORY BROUGHT WAMBAUGH HIS SECOND EDGAR AWARD, FOR BEST CRIME FACT BOOK, AND IN 2004 HE WAS THE RECIPIENT OF AN MWA GRAND MASTER AWARD. HE RETURNED TO FICTION WITH HOLLYWOOD STATION (2006), HIS FIRST BOOK DEPICTING LIFE IN THE LAPD SINCE THE DELTA STAR (1983). HOLLYWOOD STATION WAS HIGHLY CRITICAL OF CONDITIONS CAUSED BY THE FEDERAL CONSENT DECREE UNDER WHICH THE LAPD HAD TO OPERATE AFTER THE RAMPART SCANDAL.
IN THE 2000S, WAMBAUGH ALSO BEGAN TEACHING SCREENWRITING COURSES AS A GUEST LECTURER FOR THE THEATER DEPARTMENT AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA SAN DIEGO.
“Dude, you better drop that long knife,” the tall, suntanned cop said. At Hollywood Station they called him “Flotsam” by virtue of his being a surfing enthusiast.His shorter partner, also with a major tan, hair even more suspiciously blond and sun streaked, dubbed “Jetsam” for the same reason, said, sotto voce, “Bro, that ain’t a knife. That’s a bayonet, in case you can’t see too good. And why didn’t you check out a Taser and a bean-bag gun from the kit room, is what I’d like to know. That’s what the DA’s office and FID are gonna ask if we have to light him up. Like, ‘Why didn’t you officers use nonlethal force?’ Like, ‘Why’d that Injun have to bite the dust when you coulda captured him alive?’ That’s what they’ll say.”“I thought you checked them out and put them in the trunk. You walked toward the kit room.”“No, I went to the john. And you were too busy ogling Ronnie to know where I was at,” Jetsam said. “Your head was somewheres else. You gotta keep your mind in the game, bro.”Everyone on the midwatch at Hollywood Station knew that Jetsam had a megacrush on Officer Veronica “Ronnie” Sinclair and got torqued when Flotsam or anybody else flirted with her. In any case, both surfer cops considered it sissified to carry a Taser on their belts.Referring to section 5150 of the Welfare and Institutions Code, which all cops used to describe a mental case, Flotsam whispered, “Maybe this fifty-one-fifty’s trashed on PCP, so we couldn’t taze him anyways. He’d swat those darts outta him like King Kong swatted the airplanes. So just chill. He ain’t even giving us the stink eye. He just maybe thinks he’s a wooden Indian or something.”“Or maybe we’re competing with a bunch of other voices he’s hearing and they’re scarier,” Jetsam observed. “Maybe we’re just echoes.”They’d gotten nowhere by yelling the normal commands to the motionless Indian, a stooped man in his early forties, only a decade older than they were but with a haggard face, beaten down by life. And while the cops waited for the backup they’d requested, they’d begun speaking to him in quiet voices, barely audible in the unlit alley over the traffic noise on Melrose Avenue. It was there that 6-X-46 had chased and cornered him, a few blocks from Paramount Studios, from where the code 2 call had come.The Indian had smashed a window of a boutique to steal a plus-size gold dress with a handkerchief hemline and a red one with an empire waist. He’d squeezed into the red dress and walked to the Paramount main gate, where he’d started chanting gibberish and, perhaps prophetically, singing “Jailhouse Rock” before demanding admittance from a startled security officer who had dialed 9-1-1.“These new mini-lights ain’t worth a shit,” Jetsam said, referring to the small flashlights that the LAPD bought and issued to all officers ever since a widely viewed videotaped arrest showed an officer striking a combative black suspect with his thirteen-inch aluminum flashlight, which caused panic in the media and in the police commission and resulted in the firing of the Latino officer.After this event, new mini-flashlights that couldn’t cause harm to combative suspects unless they ate them were ordered and issued to new recruits. Everything was fine with the police commission and the cop critics except that the high-intensity lights set the rubber sleeves on fire and almost incinerated a few rookies before the Department recalled all of those lights and ordered these new ten-ouncers.Jetsam said, “Good thing that cop used flashlight therapy instead of smacking the vermin with a gun. We’d all be carrying two-shot derringers by now.”Flotsam’s flashlight seemed to better illuminate the Indian, who stood staring up white-eyed at the starless smog-shrouded sky, his back to the graffiti-painted wall of a two-story commercial building owned by Iranians, leased by Vietnamese. The Indian may have chosen the red dress because it matched his flip-flops. The gold dress lay crumpled on the asphalt by his dirt-encrusted feet, along with the cut-offs he’d been wearing when he’d done the smash-and-grab.So far, the Indian hadn’t threatened them in any way. He just stood like a statue, his breathing shallow, the bayonet held down against his bare left thigh, which was fully exposed. He’d sliced the slit in the red dress clear up to his flank, either for more freedom of movement or to look more provocative.“Dude,” Flotsam said to the Indian, holding his Glock nine in the flashlight beam so the Indian could observe that it was pointed right at him, “I can see that you’re spun out on something. My guess is you been doing crystal meth, right? And maybe you just wanted an audition at Paramount and didn’t have any nice dresses to wear to it. I can sympathize with that too. I’m willing to blame it on Oscar de la Renta or whoever made the fucking things so alluring. But you’re gonna have to drop that long knife now or pretty soon they’re gonna be drawing you in chalk on this alley.”Jetsam, whose nine was also pointed at the ponytailed Indian, whispered to his partner, “Why do you keep saying long knife to this zombie instead of bayonet?”“He’s an Indian,” Flotsam whispered back. “They always say long knife in the movies.”“That refers to us white men!” Jetsam said. “We’re the fucking long knives!”“Whatever,” said Flotsam. “Where’s our backup, anyhow? They coulda got here on skateboards by now.”When Flotsam reached tentatively for the pepper-spray canister on his belt, Jetsam said, “Uncool, bro. Liquid Jesus ain’t gonna work on a meth-monster. It only works on cops. Which you proved the time you hit me with act-right spray instead of the ’roided-up primate I was doing a death dance with.”“You still aggro over that?” Flotsam said, remembering how Jetsam had writhed in pain after getting the blast of OC spray full in the face while they and four other cops swarmed the hallucinating body-builder who was paranoid from mixing recreational drugs with steroids. “Shit happens, dude. You can hold a grudge longer than my ex-wife.”In utter frustration, Jetsam finally said quietly to the Indian, “Bro, I’m starting to think you’re running a game on us. So you either drop that bayonet right now or the medicine man’s gonna be waving chicken claws over your fucking ashes.”
The greatest writer of cop stories is back. Joseph Wambaugh has written his 18th novel, Hollywood Crows, completed with greedy business owners, lusty wives and conflicted cops. The femme fatale in this one is Margot Aziz, the beautiful stripper, soon to be ex-wife, of Ali Aziz, owner of a strip club on Sunset Boulevard. Margot firm desire is to be rid of her husband and all of his shady business deals. She wants his money and that’s all. Aziz wants her dead. Margot has his fortune in hand and custody of his son. The issue in the book is how far will the lady go to get what she wants, since it is very apparent that she knows how to use what she has to get anything she wants. Because she suspects the husband wants to take their 9-year-old son out of the country to live, the stripper is planning to kill her husband. She connives to try to get a CROW to kill her husband by seducing the cop and setting him up to be the fall guy.
Nate Weiss, nicknamed ‘Hollywood’ is a cop “hungry for stardom and looking for love.” He and his partner Bix Rumstead, think Margot is just a socialite going through a divorce that is a little messy. They don’t know she is setting them up. They don’t know that outside forces are at work to eliminate them. Nate wants Margot, but then again who doesn’t? He works with a squad of surfer cops, tough women, and a few veterans known as the ‘Hollywood Crows.’ The title refers to a special division, the community relations officers, whose members are called the CROWS by the police in other divisions. They deal with calls like noisy neighbors, domestic disturbances, parking problems and other minor crimes. Spouses that want to kill each other are just a little bit out of their league. Typical of a Wambaugh book, Crows delves into love, passion, and deception with the men in blue, trying to protect and serve while trying to stay alive. Bad guys are indeed evil, but incurably careless, practically arresting themselves. Are the new cops up to the task? Is the old guard a better group? The writer leaves it to the readers to figure that one out.
Wambaugh’s style reads like a screenplay. Lots of gritty realistic dialogue and twists and turns fill up this realistic modern police novel. Lots of nasty police dialogue. Lots of nasty police situations. Lots of gruesome, gross scenes and descriptions. Revisiting the cops he introduced in his warmly received 2006 Hollywood Station, this sequel lives up to its advanced billing. Plenty of old Wambaugh characters parade through this one, full of plot twists and turns that cannot help but to hold your attention. The master and the inventor of the modern police novel, Hollywood Crows is gritty truth, bawdy humor, brilliant characters, cool plotting, and irreverent humor that mark all of his books. The rhythm of this book about cops has the realistic feel that mark of all of Wambaugh’s efforts. Nobody knows or writes cops better than Joseph Aloysius Wambaugh. A vivid cop tale, this is the best police story of 2008; it is impossible to put down.