Thursday, 4 December 2008


It was hard to believe it had been twenty years since Joseph Wambaugh’s last novel, when with Hollywood Station he picked up right where he left off. That was both a good and bad thing, because, to some extent, where he left off isn’t far from where he started. Wambaugh was a major step forward in the police procedural, a shift in paradigm from the 87th Precinct novels of Ed McBain, a major influence on any number of California writers, predominant among them Michael Connelly, whose Harry Bosch is precisely a cop who's an outsider to the ethos Wambaugh's cop embody (that's Connelly to Wambaugh's right in the photo).

In Sweden, the wife-husband team of Sjowall and Wahloo had taken McBain’s format and, by using a more neutral, Everyman-style main character in a balanced ensemble cast, used the police to reflecthe society they were protecting. Wambaugh went a step further, or sideways, by showing the police, warts and all, as they were affected by the society they tried to protect. They were what you would expect people trying to do an impossible job to be, and because their lives were spent in a Sisyphean battle against a bizarre enemy, they spoke a language which accepted the surreal as real. Wambaugh’s style quickly penetrated crime writing; his authenticity came from the voices, and he was better placed than most to get them accurately, because he had been a cop himself. It wasn't just his run of brilliant and amusing novels, but also the TV series Police Story, out of which came everything from Hill Street Blues to CSI.

So when I say his return was both a good thing and bad thing you’ll understand that the bad thing is simply that Hollywood Station broke no real new ground. The good thing was Wambaugh certainly hadn’t lost his ear, or his touch, despite the way, in the new century, the nature of the police has indeed changed. Not least because they are now more Choirpeople than Choirboys, and the tension between the sexes plays an important part in this story.

The crimes are simple: a jewelery store robbery is the starting point and Wambaugh moves from there to the Russian mafia and crystal meth tweakers, but the real story, as always, is the LAPD. Wambaugh might be seen as the Samuel Beckett of the crime novel: he recognised that Los Angeles was a stage on which the world's largest theatre of the absurd was played out. Or maybe like a giant Marx Brothers’ movie. In either case, his ability to mix the reality of crime and its viciousness with the humour necessary to survive dealing with it makes him one of crime fiction’s great names, and this is a welcome return. Plus, pit bull polo is a simply outstanding game.

Pit bull polo doesn't feature in Wambaugh's second novel about Hollywood Station, but in Hollywood Crows one of the two surfer cops, Jetsam (or is it Flotsam?) says ‘we’re all part of some inscrutable plan’. How right he is. With this sequel, Wambaugh is back in form, and Wambaugh's the man with the plan. It may be a bit less frenetic than its predecesor, contain fewer of those crazy cop incidents which just have to have their roots in LA reality, but it’s also more tightly plotted, and, in its story of a typical LA homicidal divorce, both funny and truer to the City of Angels and Angles which we all love. It also has the kind of darkness hanging over it that we remember so fondly from Wambaugh’s early work, where he was taking us beneath the surface of Dragnet, beyond Jack Webb with his girly ID bracelet and macho posing with a smoke. He's finally pulled The Choirboys into the PC era, and he’s pulled out all the stops.

The Crows are the Community Relations Officers, and the story starts as Hollywood Nate Weiss and Ronnie ‘Sinclair Squared’ get themselves transferred to CRO, fed up with their politically correct born-again sergeant ‘Chicken Lips‘ Treakle. Treakle replaced the legendary Oracle, who died in the last novel. Weiss, with his Screen Actors Guild card, contrasts with Bix Rumstead, a veteran crow who cares too much, at least in the eyes of his new partner Ronnie. But nothing is ever the way it seems in Hollywood, and when Hollywood Nate makes a gratuitous traffic stop of a beautiful blonde he‘s lamped at the Farmer‘s Market, the wheels start turning.

While that plot moves on, Wambaugh keeps all the other plates juggling; reading his novels is a bit like relaxing at the end of the shift and hearing the stories. But what makes this novel work better than the previous one is the way the main story involves individuals, and the biggest conflicts are those that must be solved, not by cops, but by people. Wambaugh hasn’t lost his sense of perspective, or of story-telling. Maybe it took him one book to get back to full speed, but this one certainly is there.

Hollywood Station Quercus £14.99 ISBN 1847240240
Hollywood Crows Quercus £14.99 ISBN 9781847244109

Note: This essay includes elements of my review of Hollywood Crows, which appeared in Crime Time (a link to it is elsewhere on this site).

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