- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2008

HOLLYWOOD CROWS

By Joseph Wambaugh

Little, Brown, $26.99, 352 pages

It’s clear Joseph Wambaugh, the detective-turned-author behind “The Onion Field” and “The Blue Knight,” isn’t thrilled about the rules governing today’s Los Angeles Police Department. Those regulations get attacked by virtually every cop character in Mr. Wambaugh’s latest novel, the bleakly comic “Hollywood Crows.”

Readers won’t mind the impact these guidelines have on Mr. Wambaugh’s oeuvre. They’ve helped him get past his reliance on husky, hard-drinking cops that overpowered even his liveliest prose.

The new book, a sequel to Mr. Wambaugh’s 2006 novel “Hollywood Station,” follows the men and women of the department’s Community Relations Office, or CROws. They handle quality of life issues like noise pollution and other societal ills. Sick of people illegally parking in your neighborhood? Call the Crows.

It’s far from glamorous, and the assembled officers feel their fair share of guilt for tackling the assignments. But the work does get more than a few officers ensnared in some major drama here.

Mr. Wambaugh isn’t eager to flesh out his narrative quite yet. First, we need to get to know the Crows themselves, a colorful bunch including “Station” holdovers Flotsam and Jetsam.

In Mr. Wambaugh’s literary world, officers without nicknames rarely exist. And if they do, they’re often not worth knowing.

Hollywood Nate Weiss wants to be an actor in the worst way, but the closest he can get is a small role in a forgettable B-movie. And Bix Ramstead, no nickname necessary, seems like the perfect cop, a well-mannered family man without any of the axes that superiors like Chickenlips Treakle regularly grind. In Hollywood, appearances always deceive.

Two officers eventually get mixed up with Margot Aziz, a stunning soon-to-be divorcee with an eye for emotionally wounded cops. Her future ex, a strip club impresario named Ali Aziz, serves as “Crows’” unofficial villain, a seedy entrepreneur who gives to every cop charity imaginable to stay apace with the law.

While some of Mr. Wambaugh’s tales trend toward the bleakest elements of police work, “Hollywood Crows” skews toward the black humor inherent in the serving and protecting game. The confrontations between the Crows and their constituents are rarely violent. Instead, they speak to the cultural instability - and loneliness - at the heart of Hollywood. But when darkness does fall on some key characters, the impact is far more visceral than the reader may expect. The author doesn’t flinch in depicting the intersection between the law and moral slippage.

Mr. Wambaugh routinely draws back the curtain on how a police department operates, both from an organizational perspective as well as the politics at play. His grip on the latter is particularly sharp here, although he neglects to refer to past misdeeds within the LAPD that led to the current conduct codes.

The officers on the beat all know the score - the politically correct game played by their superiors and a prying media, not to mention how a particular surname can be an officer’s ticket up the departmental ladder.

The story driving “Hollywood Crows” isn’t remarkable. It’s hardly different than the plots driving any televised cop drama. It’s the characters and their colorful interludes that makes “Hollywood Crows” such a quick, delicious read.

Look no further than crack addict Leonard Stilwell, a societal throwaway who manages to play a role in the unfolding crime story. The burnout just wants to get enough money to score his next hit, but his appetites lead him directly into the Crows’ cross hairs.

Mr. Wambaugh’s characters represent an uneven lot. Some, Ali Aziz, are wonderfully one-dimensional. If he had a long mustache he would twist it while letting out a throat-clearing cackle. Others, such as Crow officer Ronnie Sinclair, barely register. The quiet romance between Doomsday Dan and his new partner, the zaftig Gert Von Braun represents a rare moment of stillness in an otherwise dense presentation.

The author delivers so many inventive scenarios it’s easy to forgive his overly ornate dialogue. The passages, though, never feel less than authentic from a law enforcement perspective. Clearly, Mr. Wambaugh still maintains strong ties to the police community, witness his elaborate riffs on modern justice and the hoops officers must jump through to mete it out.

Police business remains the best business for Mr. Wambaugh, and his enduring bond with modern cop realities infuses “Hollywood Crows” with both humor and heartbreak.

Christian Toto, who writes frequently on popular culture for The Washington Times, lives in Denver.

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