Friday, 5 March 2010


A full moon is a dangerous thing in Hollywood. It brings out the craziness in the crazies, and it looks on but doesn't really watch over the cops in Joseph Wambaugh's third visit to the Hollywood station. It marks a definite change of tone from the first two, although it does begin with two street characters trying to cash the social security check of the third, who's dead, but with them in his wheelchair. Fraud is the main strand of the novel, which is a little less frenetic and madcap than the first two, but also has more of a pulpy flavour, as the other criminal threat is the hunt for a serial rapist. That pulpy taste may be because this novel seems to harken back to a couple of familiar things. One is the early 1950s serial killer movies, the ones where the maladjusted boy with the dominant mom writes 'stop me before I kill again!' in lipstick on the mirror. Wambaugh uses that with great precision here, and it works because the times have changed, and we take our serial killers much more casually now, while forgetting that the atmosphere around them is far more sexually charged. Thus young Malcolm Rojas is an almost sympathetic character, in contrast to most of the rest of the criminal element he gets caught up with.

That element is the other familiar area. I wouldn't be surprised if the con-man Dewey Gleason and his domineering wide Eunice weren't intended by Wambaugh as a hommage of sorts to Donald Westlake and his Dortmunder gang. They indulge in various identity theft scams, fake rentals, credit card swipes, all master-minded by the chain-smoking Eunice. Gleason's sad-sack personality reflects Dortmunder's, and his use of his skills as a failed actor also recalls Westlake's actor-thief Grofield. There's a lot of westlake in the way his scamming employees try to scam him, and in the way it plays out in an almost slapstick fashion.

Except that, this being Wambaugh, the cops are at the core of the story, and, at the core, no matter how much farce there may be, the reality is serious, and always potentially tragic. It's what gives most of Wambaugh's work its power, it's what makes it such compelling black humour, and in Hollywood Moon it packs great impact. Particularly for those who've followed the careers of Hollywood Nate, Flotsam and Jetsam, Dana Vaughn, Sheila Montez and the rest.

Wambaugh's story-telling here reminds me of Jean Shepherd, whose tales of childhood are told with an omnipresent recollection. That seems to me exactly the way it must be when Wambaugh wines and dines his cops and hears their stories. After all, as the cops say, 'this is fucking Hollywood'.

Hollywood Moon by Joseph Wambaugh
Quercus, £17.99, ISBN 9781847248114

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