- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 13, 2007

In Hollywood Station (Little, Brown, $24.99, 352 pages), Joseph Wambaugh, an acknowledged master of literary cop craft, has returned to his old stamping grounds in this raw-edged account of the Los Angeles police who patrol what some call “Hollyweird.”

By contrast, in the engagingly titled Everybody Kills Somebody Sometime (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $23.95, 288 pages), Robert J. Randisi reprises the pulp fiction of the ‘50s in a slam-bang satire set in Las Vegas in the days of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack. He offers as a bait for readers a cast of expired celebrities that include not only Hollywood high rollers but Senator John F. Kennedy, then a presidential hopeful, and Mafia moll Judith Campbell.

The bleak reality of police work and the surreal setting of movie stars in the gambling mecca offer reading entertainment on different levels and both work.

Mr. Wambaugh’s world is bloody and bizarre yet it is given not only life but wry humor through his capacity to capture the kind of men and women who work in law enforcement and why they are drawn to it and stay with it despite its discouragements. The book reads like a kaleidoscope of criminals and cops of all shape and personalities.

There is the veteran Oracle, with 46 years on the force, who insists he is still there because half his pension would go to his divorced wife if he retired, and of course that isn’t the reason. Reflecting the sociological changes of the times, there is Budgie, a divorced woman officer who not only has a four-month-old daughter at home, but is dealing with the problem of lactation while on duty. Her partner is a “cranky geezer older than her father” who becomes surprisingly protective of her after an introductory encounter that comes close to farce.

On the bad guy side there is the crack addict Farley Ramsdale with his pathetic partner who are scrambling to increase the amount of money they can steal to get drugs. He, of course, comes to a sticky end.

The author weaves his tangled plot of drugs and death while taking time out to probe the troubles of those who are members of what in recent years became the most scandal-beset and controversial police force in the country. Mr. Wambaugh’s obvious sympathy for the plight of the LAPD is given voice by a veteran female officer, Andi McCrea, who writes bitterly of the public lack of understanding or appreciation of police work in a college paper that she reads aloud to 23 classmates unaware that she is a “middle aged cop old enough to be their momma.”

Conscious of the blank stares of her young audience, McCrea chronicles the decline of the police department under the impact of various scandals and portrays its consequent crippling by an onslaught of bureaucracy that forced it to accept federal monitoring. She doesn’t make much impact on her fellow students, who are mostly intrigued that they had a cop in their class. But she is pleasantly surprised by her professor, who tells her, “The fact is they don’t really give a damn about civil liberties or law enforcement.

“More than half of today’s university students cannot even understand the positions put forth in newspaper editorials … they don’t read anything outside of class but magazines and an occasional graphic novel,” he observes.

He then rates McCrea’s paper an A-plus which puts her on the Dean’s list, insures her bachelor’s degree and does something for her battered professional confidence.

Otherwise, Mr. Wambaugh focuses on his favorite topics of the craziness and brutality that permeate crime and punishment with Hollywood as the sordid and rambunctious setting. The book winds up in the usual blaze of bullets between the police and their prey, although it is embellished with a nice little twist that has drug money providing a nest egg for a deserving 90-something woman. Mr. Wambaugh has not lost his touch.

In “Everybody Kills Somebody Sometime,” Mr. Randisi is out there flying among the stars who lit up the Las Vegas night in the ‘50s, in an unlikely but entertaining account of how Frank Sinatra and Joey Bishop enlist the help of Eddie G., a pit boss at a hotel, to protect Dean Martin from anonymous threats.

The frosting on the cake is provided in cameo appearances by George Raft, Sammy Davis Jr., John F. Kennedy and Judith Campbell whose generosity with her favors reportedly also embraced Mafia boss Sam Giancana. Eddie G. gets beaten up and generally harassed before he solves what there is of the mystery.

Yet readers may be mostly intrigued by his willingness to risk his life to help a bunch of self-obsessed multimillionaires who never recompense him by more than a kind word. The classic tough private investigator of those days surely would have cut a deal on reimbursement before sticking his neck out that far, but proximity to dubious celebrity apparently is enough for the star-struck Eddie G.

However, Mr. Randisi does note that Sinatra’s support of the Kennedy presidential campaign didn’t pay off in terms of access to the Kennedy White House. Apparently even a president as freewheeling as JFK drew the line at potential mob connections in the Oval Office.

In The Traitor’s Tale (Berkley, $24.95, 384 pages), Margaret Frazer has her Dame Frevisse of St. Frideswide’s medieval nunnery at it again in this 16th chronicling of crime solving by a woman in a wimple. Ms. Frazer knows her history and the book is admirably researched, painting a vivid and often bloody landscape of treachery and rebellion in the days of King Henry VI of England.

Her Dame Frevisse dominates the scene, and she should. There is something more than a little intriguing about a nun who apparently gets regular leave from the convent to go out and unravel royal mysteries, even if she does always have another nun by her side as an escort. Dame Frevisse has to do occasional penance for sins of omission when it comes to praying often enough, yet she admits to herself that her choice to take the veil was for herself rather than a higher calling. And her patient but pragmatic Mother Superior agrees: “At best, yes, your choice was utterly for yourself.”

It doesn’t make Frevisse sound as though she is a poster woman for the nun’s habit but it does sharpen the reader’s interest in a book which tends to plod rather than gallop through the intricacies of treachery in the Middle Ages.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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