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The Old Centurion and His New Recruits By: David Forsmark
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, December 13, 2006


Hollywood Station
By Joseph Wambaugh. 

Little, Brown, $24.99, 340 pp.

Echo Park
By Michael Connelly.

Little, Brown, $24.99, 405 pp.

The Night Gardener
By George Pelecanos.

Little, Brown, $24.99, 372 pp.

When I wrote book reviews for a local newspaper, a handful of retired homicide detectives would line up to borrow my review copy of the latest Joseph Wambaugh novel. While I consistently wrote that Wambaugh had no peer when it came to writing about cops and their job, one of these guys informed me that I still didn’t quite get the author’s significance.

“You almost have to have been on the job in the '70s to grasp how cops feel about Wambaugh,” he told me. At the time when the word “pig” was entering common parlance as a synonym for police, Wambaugh’s 1971 classic The New Centurions showed -- and even wallowed in – the dark side of police work but still conveyed police work as a high calling.

 

Since then, countless journalists, novelists and practically every cop who can fashion a creative paragraph have aspired to be “the next Wambaugh.” It’s been a decade since Floaters, the last Wambaugh novel, so it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that some of his successors have conquered that territory.

 

Now the Old Centurion comes out of his decade of dormancy and hits us with Hollywood Station, proof that no matter how good other writers of crime fiction are, there is only one Joseph Wambaugh, a true American original.

 

The late Ed McBain perfected the police procedural that examines how a detective acts on the job, but Wambaugh, as he himself likes to say, examines “how the Job acts on the cop.” Wambaugh once said Homicide: Life on the Street was the best TV cop show ever because it showed that the job itself posed far greater risks to police than the bad guys. No one has ever come close to illustrating the truth of this statement like Wambaugh himself.

 

The job of policing Los Angeles has never been harder, Wambaugh asserts in Hollywood Station. This is largely thanks to the fact that George H. W. Bush, hoping to stop the hemorrhaging in his approval ratings, surrendered to Maxine Waters and company and appointed a federal oversight board to root out racism in the LAPD (and second guess every use of force, lethal and non-lethal)  after the Rodney King riots.

 

No president since has had either the courage or the inclination to let this oversight expire, so the outrage continues with no end in sight. As Wambaugh puts it, “The actions of a handful of cops and the zealotry of cop critics have all but emasculated the best big-city police department in America”

 

But while Hollywood Station may be as informative as a Heather MacDonald essay, this is classic Wambaugh — mordantly funny, poignant, action-packed and, at times, bordering on madcap farce — just like real life in an urban police station.

 

While already-overworked officers at Hollywood station are falsifying interrogations of white suspects in minority neighborhoods to avoid allegations of racial profiling, meth addicts and hustlers run wild in the streets. This is despite the new police chief’s use of crime stats to try to Giuliani-ize the streets of L.A. Unfortunately, with many times the area to cover with far fewer cops, this isn’t going so well.

 

Wambaugh introduces an unusually large cast of characters for a 340-page novel. One of them, an ambitious female detective who is finishing up her college degree, gives us an early clue to the author's point of view in a situation many readers of this site will identify with.

 

The detective is sweating the oral presentation she is about to give to the class, from whom she has hidden her profession:

 

“Now that it was almost over, she was ashamed she had sat silently, relishing all those A’s and A-pluses, pretending to agree with all the crap in this citadel of political correctness that often made her want to gag. She was looking for self-respect at the end of the academic trail. … she had often wanted to say, `Where’s the goddamn diversity for me? I’m the one in the minority.”

 

Among her fellow cops at Hollywood station are an aging sergeant known as The Oracle who wants to set the record for length of service in the LAPD, a pair of surfer patrolmen known to their colleagues as Flotsam and Jetsam, an old-school patrolman near retirement who is teamed with a lactating partner just back from maternity leave, and a smart Ukrainian detective who mangles his Americanisms.

 

At first, Hollywood Station reads like a nonfiction life-in-the-month-of book. The plot, very much subordinate to character, concerns a daring robbery at a jewelry store involving a fake grenade and suspects with Russian accents that has everyone spouting Russian Mafia cliches. The real culprits, though, are a meth-addled couple who sell stolen mail to a pair of Russian wannabes who fancy themselves the Bonnie and Clyde of the borscht set.

 

Hollywood Station is funnier by accident than Carl Hiaasen’s Florida environmentalist novels are on purpose these days. It's a wild ride from start to finish.

 

Wambaugh, who collaborated on the riveting film adaption of his The Onion Field and on Police Story, the only stab at a realistic cop show in the 1970s, reportedly is working with liberal TV producer David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, Picket Fences, Boston Public) on developing Hollywood Station as a TV series. THAT should make for some interesting production meetings.

 

***

 

Easily the most famous writer to be awarded the mantle of “the next Wambaugh” is former L.A. Times crime beat reporter Michael Connelly. His novels featuring LAPD detective Harry Bosch regularly top the best-seller charts and garner critical acclaim. Lately, Connelly has added another layer of realism to his stories by including actual cops and current events in the mix.

 

But after reading Hollywood Station, police procedural fans might ask how an author whose best book, Angel’s Flight, dealt with post-Rodney King riot Los Angeles has managed to ignore the 800-pound gorilla of the federal consent decree while writing stories about a cop who is continuously under scrutiny for use of force, however justified.

 

That caveat aside, Echo Park, Connelly’s latest, is an excellent tale of a cop in pursuit of justice no matter what rules liberal bureaucrats may put in his way.

 

Like many homicide detectives, Harry Bosch has an unsolved case that has haunted him throughout his career. Now, a recently apprehended serial killer wants to make a deal to avoid death row by confessing to the 13-year-old murder of Marie Gesto. Bosch, who has kept in touch with Marie’s family and worked the case in his spare time, is given the job of investigating the confession.

 

Bosch is torn between the desire to provide a measure of peace to Marie’s parents and his conviction that the killer richly deserves the death penalty. Of course, this being a Michael Connelly novel, things aren’t that simple.  The devil here, as in all of Harry Bosch’s efforts, is in the details.

 

***

 

George Pelecanos has been critically acclaimed for his noirish Washington, D.C., crime novels since his debut, but his latest, The Night Gardener,  is a revelation.His early work was a bit mannered as he tried too hard to be Socially Significant. His first attempt at a police procedural, however, still has plenty of fodder for social scientists, but Pelecanos has developed a far more natural feel to his storytelling.

 

My guess is that Pelecanos benefited greatly by his stint as a writer on HBO’s superlative series, The Wire, working with journalist David Simon, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book on which Homicide: Life on the Streets was based, and retired Baltimore cop Edward Burns. Pelecanos was one of the principal writers in the seasons in which The Wire dealt directly in an unprecedented fashion with the ways in which institutions in the inner city are failing the children forced to grow up there —but are doing very well for black Democrat politicians and bureaucrats.

 

Those elements are present in The Night Gardener but are the background music for the plot. D.C. homicide detective Gus Ramone finds himself reliving a 20-year-old unsolved case when a black youth is found murdered in a community garden. Ramone’s worst fears about raising his kids in the dysfunctional city -- he lies about his residency to get his teenaged son out of the gang-ridden local school -- are heightened when he discovers the dead boy was a friend of his son’s.

 

Two men see a chance at redemption in the new case. The first is Ramone’s former partner, Dan “Doc” Holliday, a screw-up who perfected the cliché of the hard drinking insubordinate Irishman before he was booted from the force and now is a bored limo driver. The other is T.C.Cook -- a legendary cowboy-hat-wearing black detective who has never quite gotten over the fact that the killer known as the Night Gardener eluded him.  Both see their chances at redemption in the new case.

 

These familiar elements from a hundred police novels become something new in Pelecanos’s hands. This is not only one of the best mysteries of the year, it is one of the year’s best novels, period. In the guise of a thriller, Pelecanos examines the ways in which crime, rather than racism, is the primary element that destroys a community -- and the ripples it creates and the costs it extracts even after the crime is “solved.”

 

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