Joseph Wambaugh did not invent the police novel, but no one had seen anything like The New Centurions when it was published in 1971. Here was a working, living, breathing cop with a decade of experience on the beat. Here was a detective sergeant with the Los Angeles Police Department telling stories from his own experience instead of from the usual remove of a novelist mixing make-believe with a little bit of research. Wambaugh’s cops were neither heroes nor villains but men who gave as much to the job as the job gave back. The relationship he traced between humanity and authority could be symbiotic, but more often the wear and tear of pointless crime, binge drinking and failing marriages coalesced into a Molotov cocktail’s worth of potential conflict awaiting the match.
Wambaugh’s naturalistic portrait of the cop world turned Centurions and The Blue Knight (1972) into bestsellers, but his next two books made him relevant to a larger audience and to the next generation of crime writers. The Onion Field (1973), a true-crime account of a routine traffic stop in 1963 that spiraled into the kidnapping and murder of LAPD officer James Campbell, gave Wambaugh a chance to expand his view beyond the tunnel vision of his own experiences. The book also won deserved raves for its sympathetic portrayal of Campbell’s partner Karl Hettinger, who escaped the kidnappers only to face ridicule and criticism from fellow officers mocking his traumatic ordeal as a traffic stop’s worst case scenario.
By the time The Choirboys was published two years later, Wambaugh had graduated from cop novelist to celebrity. Film rights were in the offing for The Onion Field, eventually made into a movie in 1979; The New Centurions became a 1972 film starring George C. Scott while The Blue Knight starred William Holden in a 1973 mini-series version. And viewers could tune in to NBC every week to catch the latest installment of Police Story, the anthology series Wambaugh created. His fame was so pervasive that he was reported to remark, “I would have guys in handcuffs asking me for autographs.” Much as he loved the job, Wambaugh could only move forward as a writer if he quit.
That move took form as a dramatic change of tone, a freer, funnier and more ribald depiction of the world Wambaugh knew. Reading The Choirboys in 2008 is a giddy, somewhat horrifying experience. Night shift policemen, desperate for authenticity and connection, convene in McArthur Park to binge-drink and gang-bang under the euphemistic cloak of “choir practice” But those same cops — especially the war pilot hero “Spermwhale” Whalen, his tragicomic partner Baxter Slate and the bullying Roscoe Rules — are revealed as undoubtedly human, their flaws pushed to extremes as a means of coping with the cruel nature of police work. The Choirboys is very much a product of its mid-1970s time, especially in its two-dimensional portrayals of cop groupies Ora Lee and Carolina Moon, but the energy of Wambaugh’s newfound, blackly comedic voice is a revelation, a trap-door opening into all facets of a policeman’s world. The mordant, often hilarious exploration of that complex universe would continue in The Black Marble (1978), The Glitter Dome (1981), and subsequent tales.
After a long eclipse by the work of younger writers, Wambaugh’s 2006 novel Hollywood Station was seen by many as a return to form. While the author’s two-decade absence from the LAPD certainly showed (his ear for dialogue now seems tuned about a half-tone flat), the off-key atmosphere of his latest seemed an apt reflection of the nervous, bureaucracy-laden L.A. of the post-Rodney King era. His follow-up, Hollywood Crows, moves from the station proper to the Community Relations Office (or CRO, pronounced “crow”) which more hardened cops refer to as “the sissy beat” or “teddy bears in blue”. That pejorative comes laced with envy: sure, the eighteen cops and four civilians have to handle crank calls, but “they could pretty well set their own ten-hour duty tours in their four-day work week.” Far from the grind of the beat, Nate Weiss, Ronnie Sinclair and Bix Ramstead enjoy a sense of security that will ultimately turn out false.
The easy life of the CRO especially appeals to Nate, the main returning character from Hollywood Station. At thirty-six, his fifteen years of LAPD experience are building to an oft-repeated mantra: “He needed a break. He needed an agent. He didn’t have time left in his acting life to waste on pieces of shit.” Nate loves nothing more than to hang out in coffee shops and eavesdrop on salty conversations between frustrated screenwriters and shark-like agents, even if they offer a depressing glimpse into his own future:
He’d noticed that always around 9:30 A.M. they’d get up one by one and make excuses to leave, for important calls from directors, or for appointments with agents, or to get back to scripts they were polishing. Nate figured they all just went home to sit and stare at phones that never rang. It gave him a chill to think that he might be looking at Nathan Weiss a few decades from now.
Ronnie transfers to CRO after too many gory deaths and skirmishes with her old boss, not to mention its place on the promotion ladder. But the slow pace and her family’s keen approval, and the proto-crush she has on married colleague Bix start to sour her on CRO’s charms. Having recently worked hard to give the female cops in his books the attention they’re due, Wambaugh makes a good start with Ronnie, potentially interesting as a twice-divorced childless thirty-something woman Unfortunately, aside from describing her as a “high-energy brunette”, Wambaugh doesn’t really know what to do with her — despite one devastating moment when she and Bix attempt to rescue a four-year-old girl from a car wreck, Ronnie winds up less a whole character than a sum of descriptors.
Descriptions do, however, make for great color, and Wambaugh comes up with some wonderful zingers. He describes a police officer as being “one of the Starbucks cops would rather endure severe caffeine deprivation than ever set foot in a 7-Eleven for a cuppa joe.” Surfer-dude cops Flotsam and Jetsam, also returnees from Hollywood Station, have more bite to their badinage; now Flotsam asks his partner “why don’t you go all radically CSI on me and start looking for stuff with DNA on it? I don’t mind sitting here while you sleuth around.” The day-to-day aspect of policing once again proves to be Wambaugh’s m?tier, and had Hollywood Crows stuck to what he knew best, it would have been an incisive look at the current culture of the LAPD.
But Hollywood Crows tries to shoehorn into this a plot better suited to world of pulp noir, and the result resembles bread with no time to rise. Both Nate and Bix get mixed up in the affairs of the former Margaret Osborne, a stereotypically ambitious exotic dancer who sought upward mobility through marriage to (and ugly divorce with) nightclub owner Ali Aziz. Margot Aziz wishes in vain for the allure as of a James M. Cain novel’s femme fatale while dastardly Ali is a cringing throwback to the Arab villains depicted in James Cameron’s 1994 movie True Lies. Jasmine, the woman both use for their respective purposes, has even less to do.
Whenever they appeared, I kept wishing the cops — especially Bix — would wise up that they had wandered into the wrong movie set and run back to their more interesting, less clich?-ridden territory. Ali does, unwittingly, provide the most apt metaphor for Hollywood Crows when, during a rendezvous with Jasmine he unzips his fly and wishes he’d taken Viagra. Wambaugh is achingly close to the kind of scaldingly funny entertainment he used to write, but lacks the energy charge that drove The Choirboys and the immediacy of anecdotes gleaned from his fourteen-year LAPD stint. There are pleasures to be had in Hollywood Crows, but pursuing them with unfettered abandon requires turning a blind eye to Wambaugh’s prior literary glories.