- - Friday, April 20, 2012

By Joseph Wambaugh
Mysterious Press, $27, 336 pages


I recently had the opportunity to accompany officers from the Philadelphia Police Department’s Narcotics Field Unit South as they raided two drug houses and arrested suspected dealers. Spending the evening with the Philly cops, I was able to witness the twin masks of comedy and tragedy in the street theater that plays out for police officers on every watch. I was also able to listen to the cops’ insightful comments, colorful banter and dark humorous remarks. Insightfulness, spirited dialogue and dark humor are standard features of Joseph Wambaugh’s novels, and all animate “Harbor Nocturne,” his latest novel.

Following up on his Hollywood Station quartet, four novels about the cops that work in Hollywood, Calif., Mr. Wambaugh’s “Harbor Nocturne” branches out to cover the Harbor Division at San Pedro as well.

Mr. Wambaugh brings back the popular Hollywood Station regulars, including “Hollywood Nate” Weiss, an aging, aspiring actor; the surfer-dude cops, Jetsam and Flotsam and Britney Smalls, a slender 24-year-old officer called “the ballerina.” Although Smalls has been a police officer for only two years, she is a respected “gunslinger,” having shot and killed an armed murderer in the line of duty.

Also back is the station’s invisible man, a 35-year LAPD veteran named Chester Toles. Toles is a notoriously lazy cop that Sgt. Lee Murillo dubbed the “Unicorn” because he never can be counted on for unpleasant or end-of-watch jobs.

At roll call, Sgt. Murillo promises a reward of a pizza to the cops who bring back the best “Hollywood Love Story,” the weirder the better, and another pizza for the best “Quiet Desperation Story.”The Hollywood cops encounter creepy, sad, funny and grotesque people on their watch, and their stories are worth more than two pizzas.

Mr. Wambaugh also provides a tender and tragic love story between a slacker longshoreman named Dinko Babich and Lita Medina, an illegal immigrant who is also a Mexican dancer and sex worker.

Mr. Wambaugh describes San Pedro as the home to generations of Croatians, Italians and other European groups, as well as a growing Mexican population. The port employs 900,000 people and brings in $39 billion in wages and taxes.Babich, a Croatian-American, is on a 30-day suspension from his longshoreman job for marijuana use when he bumps into a childhood pal, an Italian-American hustler named Hector Cozzo, at a bar.

Cozzo, who wears an old-fashioned mullet haircut and sports a comical Al Pacino look from “Scarface,” has business cards that read, “Hector Cozzo, Facilitator and Entrepreneur.” Cozzo asks Babich to drive Lita home from the bar. Dinko is attracted to her and offers his telephone number to her. If she were ever to need help, she should call him.

The collision course among the cops, the criminals and the star-crossed lovers begins with the discovery of 12 dead young Asian women and an older Asian man in a shipping container on the San Pedro docks.

Cozzo and the dancers work for a huge, vicious Korean criminal named William Kim. Kim deals in human slavery and smuggles women into the country in shipping containers, including the one found with the 13 dead Asians. Kim’s partner in crime is an Eastern European gangster named Pavel Markov, a well-built man in his 70s who sports a “young Elvis” hairstyle.

When a strip club dancer named Daisy hears that her baby sister was one of the women who died in the container, she tells Lita and another girl that she is going to the police to inform on Kim. Lita later sees Daisy confronting Kim, and then Daisy disappears. Lita is frightened of what Kim might have done to Daisy and what he might do to her, so she calls Dinko and asks him to pick her up. Dinko hides Lita in the house he shares with his mother, and the two begin to fall in love.

As Kim searches for Lita, Markov has Cozzo introduce a Russian gangster with apotem-nophilia (the desire for the amputation of a healthy limb or limbs) to a massage parlor customer with a prosthetic foot. Unknown to Cozzo, the “customer” is Jetsam, one of the surfer cops. Jetsam, who lost a foot in the line of duty, was recruited to work undercover for the vice squad.

“Harbor Nocturne” is a well-written, fast-paced and character-driven novel.

I’m real sorry, officer,” said a bum who scared a policewoman by sneaking into the back of her squad car. “But if I may say, it was charming to hear you scream like a little girl. We sometimes forget that police officers are human beings.”

Joseph Wambaugh’s novels remind us.

• Paul Davis is a writer who blogs at https://pauldavisoncrime.blogspot.com.

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