- The Washington Times - Friday, January 8, 2010


By Joseph Wambaugh

Little Brown, $26.99, 352 pages


Joseph Wambaugh’s novels are to America’s thin blue line what Hogarth or Rowlandson’s drawings were to 18th-century British society: they give us the context that helps explain our social history. Since his groundbreaking first fiction, 1971’s “The New Centurions,” Mr. Wambaugh - who served in the Los Angeles Police Department from 1960 to 1974 - has captured the cop’s daily descent into life’s dark side with punctilious attention to detail. Refracting his characters through a Swiftian prism of biting black humor and a world-class sense of tragi-comic irony, Mr. Wambaugh gives his readers a true insider’s appreciation for the potentially lethal theater-of-the-absurd situations in which cops all too often find themselves.

Perhaps most critical, Mr. Waumbaugh is a master at depicting the roller coaster quality of cops’ lives: the boring, exhilarating, bureaucratic, adrenaline-intense, mind-numbing, gut-wrenching, humdrum, stomach-churning, yin/yang ups and downs of life in the “shop,” which is how LAPD officers refer to their patrol cars. Indeed, more than any other writer of police fiction, Mr. Wambaugh has been able to take us behind the Oakleys and inside cops’ heads. And all too often we discover that the policeman’s lot is not a happy one.

A point of full disclosure here. I have known Mr. Wambaugh for almost 40 years. I used to ride with him and his then-partner Dick Kalk during his days as a Hollenbeck Division detective sergeant. We have shared beers at his modest house in Walnut, CA, Cobb salads at the old Hollywood Brown Derby and - a few best-sellers later - vintage wine at the opulent castle he used to own in San Marino. Let me also say that not every one of his 13 previous novels have been absolute and pure pleasure to read. That, happily is not the case with “Hollywood Moon,” the final installment of Mr. Wambaugh’s Hollywood Station trilogy.

The title is how one of Hollywood Station’s senior coppers, Sgt. Lee Murillo, refers to a full moon. “As you know,” Murillo says at one roll call, “a full moon over Hollywood brings out the beast rather than the best in our citizens. The car that comes back with the weirdest encounter of the night will get an extra-large pizza with the works.” Be happy, dear reader, to know that when it comes to weird encounters, Mr. Wambaugh does not disappoint. And also be happy to know that - as is often the case in real cop life - weird encounters often include cadavers. Multiple cadavers.

“Moon” is populated by many of the same blue-uniformed denizens who appeared in “Hollywood Station” and “Hollywood Crows.” There’s 16-year veteran officer Nate Weiss, “a hawkishly handsome thirty-seven-year-old, physically fit gym rat … called Hollywood Nate because he possessed a SAG card and had actually appeared briefly in a few TV-movies.” The surfer-dude partners Flotsam, who wears “his two-inch hair gelled up in front like a baby cockatoo,” and Jetsam, whose coif is only semi-spiked, cruise in their “shop,” 6-X-32, working the Hollywood Station midwatch. So does officer Dana Vaughn, Hollywood Nate’s partner, a wisecracking, wry, single mother with 21 years on the job and up for promotion to sergeant.

Amongst the plainclothes detail there’s “Compassionate Charlie” Gilford, “a lanky, middle-aged veteran D2,” whose taste in neckties runs to patterns that look “like something Diego Rivera might have sketched on a tablecloth during a bout of d.t.’s.”

They all patrol an alternative universe populated by tweakers (meth freaks), trannies (transsexuals) and dragons (drag queens) who congregate on streets like “Sodom Monica.” Or they cruise their shops along Hollywood Boulevard, where “self-lobotomized colorless specters in pull-tab necklaces and football helmets, or maybe wearing bikini bottoms on their heads … pushing a trash-laden shopping cart, chanting gibberish, or yodeling at terrified tourists. The Hollywood cops called it ‘gone to Dizzyland.’ ”

Hollywood Station’s cops work under strict rules of engagement, because of the federal consent degree “under which the LAPD was compelled to function as a result of the Rodney King riots and the so-called Rampart scandal a decade earlier.” For example, using the old and effective “carotid restraint” on a struggling malefactor (the technique is referred to as the “LAPD sleeper hold” by cops across the country) would “now trigger the same sort of exhaustive investigation as an officer-involved shooting. This resulted in cops believing that if things came down to one or the other they’d be better off using guns. Or, as the troops put it, ‘If you can choke ‘em you can smoke ‘em.’ ”

Speaking of malefactors, Mr. Wambaugh gives us a mesmerizing pair of 21st century grifters. There’s Dewey Gleason, failed actor. “A man who’d spent most of his adult life chasing casting agents and reading for uninterested TV producers and auditioning for parts he never got.” Dewey’s senior and dominant partner is his wife Eunice, “fifty five years old, a coppery blonde with gray roots that she seldom bothered dyeing anymore until there was at least an inch showing.”

Eunice, who, lives on Whoppers and cigarettes, is a hacker whose multiple computers allow her to perpetrate credit card fraud and identity theft, forge checks and pull other scams that have amassed her almost a million bucks. Not them - her. So, it is not a happy marriage. “With the shades drown, under the harsh glare from the gooseneck lamp, she looked to [Dewey] like she should have been onstage, maybe stirring a kettle in Macbeth.”

Dewey and Eunice have recruited “runners” to work for them. Foremost, are dreadlocked Tristan Hawkins whose street name is Creole, and Jerzy Szarpowicz, a “biker-ugly cracker” with wing-nut ears and “eyebrows like balls of rust clinging to his lumpy forehead.” This pair of knuckleheads steal mail, skim credit card information and hijack everything from TV sets to laptops. Until, at one critical point, Creole and Jerzy realize that they’re being scammed just like the rest of the victims.

And then there’s Reuben Malcolm Rojas - “Hispanic, nineteen, five-eight, one forty-five, brown and brown”- a tick-tock time bomb who lives with his mother on Maplewood, just west of Kingsley, drives an old red Mustang, and, armed with the box cutter he uses at work, has started stalking and attacking middle-aged, overweight women.

Mr Wambaugh assembles these disparate, volatile elements into critical mass with great skill. Indeed, he is a grand master at creating dynamic tension with his prose. “Hollywood Moon” is his best fiction in some time - an explosive, evocative, grab-you-by-the-lapels read.

cWashington writer John Weisman’s most recent novels “SOAR,” “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action” are all available as Avon paperbacks.

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