There may just be no writer alive who more accurately writes L.A. in all its ravaged beauty. Told with grit, biting observations of the denizen that populated Los Angles and the surrounding area, and often with an extravagance that any Angelino could tell you isn’t extravagance at all. Los Angeles may just be the one place on earth where truth IS stranger that fiction. If his bad guys seem over the top to the reader, then the reader has never spent any significant time in L.A. because in L.A. over the top is a way of life.
Same with his portrayal of cops. And he should know, he spent fourteen years as one of those cops. This extravagance, often displayed in what might seem parody, with liberal doses of satire, dark humor and grit is especially apparent in his Hollywood Station series which began in 2006 and introduces the multiethnic mix of police characters in the Wilcox Avenue station as well as the roiling melting pot of the general population. He followed up Hollywood Station with 2008s Hollywood Crows , amazingly his first sequel. Harbor Nocturne continues the tale of those cynical, often humorous blue collar working stiffs whose job it is to police the wackiest city on earth. Where else would a street cop be required to referee a fight between Spiderman and Ironman after Captain America calls 911? Where else would a street cop hold an in promptitude version of Jeopardy, complete with answers required in the form of questions, with a bunch of drunks as the contestants and the outcome determining which went to jail for the night?
Harbor Nocturne picks up this cast of co-protagonists which are many; the various cops, including the surfer dude cops, one of which has only one foot, the want to be movie star cop, the retired on active duty cop, the eastern European immigrant cop who’s accent is so indecipherable that perps shut up and try and figure out if they are being arrested, the mousy, quiet female rookie who turns out to be the most macho of the bunch, and so many more you’ll laugh at, cry with and get to love. Then, to follow suit, there are just as many co-antagonists of course; The Russian mafia gangster, who true to Hollywood, is actually a Serb, who changed his name because Serb gangsters just aren’t Hollywood enough. then there is the Italian wanna be gangster with a Mexican name, the Korean, who portrays himself as either a Japanese Yakuza or a Chinese Tong member and the collection of femme fatales whose stories are often fatal to only themselves.
But, and don’t miss this point, all of these characters are actually supporting characters, even Dinko Babich, the son of a Croat immigrant, a second generation longshoreman, and a dope smoking slacker, and his star crossed lover Lita Medina, an illegal Mexican exotic dancer who can’t dance, can’t speak English, but is oh so beautiful and probably needs saving. No, the real star of the book; the real hero – and villain - of the piece is Los Angles itself, and it’s step child of a suburb, San Pedro (pronounced by the cognizanti “San Pee-dro”, not “Pey-dro” ) which is only nominally connected to L.A. proper by that umbilicus of a freeway, The Harbor freeway.
Dinko is on suspension by the union and his employer for having gotten caught high and with pot while on the job. His money is running low and he still has a good number of weeks before he can go back to the job. He runs into a shady friend from high school, Hector Cozzo who sports a mullet haircut and a comical Al Pacino look from “Scarface,”and carries business cards that say “Facilitator and Entrepreneur” and he tells Dinko he is a talent scout for strip clubs. He asks Dinko to do him a favor – for a couple hundred dollars. Pick up a new dancer, Lita, and deliver her to the Hollywood strip club owned by William Kim and his Serbian cum Russian business partner, Pavel Markov, himself an image conscious 70 year old with an Elvis pompadour.
Kim and Markov have their finger in many criminal pies, one of which involves human slavery, smuggling women into the country in shipping containers, including the one found with the 13 dead Asians on the very same docks where Dinko usually earns his paycheck.
Mean while, the men and women of Hollywood Station are on the trail of Kim/Markov for running a prostitution ring from a massage parlor, but when the sting goes totally wrong, and that avenue looks like a dead end, the cops start to think that the dead Asians in the shipping container might be connected to Kim and Markov. Especially when a dancer whose sister was one of the girls in the container turns up dead after having been last seen with Kim. The dead girl was a roommate of Lita’s and Dinko sets out to save Lita.
The story, naturally is a police procedural, but in a way that only Wambaugh can, the genres get mixed. There is the romance that develops between Lita, a victim of circumstance trying to make money to send to her mother and younger siblings in an obscure Mexican village ravaged by drug gangs, then there is the many scenes of real life police work as they patrol the streets of Hollywood and Los Angles and uncover gambling, theft, and very odd sex trade in of all things, apotem-nophilia (the desire for the amputation of a healthy limb or limbs). There are elements of the typical mystery, elements of noir, which seems like it was invented for Los Angles in all of its cynical spot lights, and elements of the thriller genre as well.
I don’t know that Wambaugh has ever written a weak book, but this surely is one of the best. It’s fast paced, the plot and story line are not just topical but cover many, many topical subjects. The characters, though they are many – and Wambaugh can probably keep this many characters juggling as well as anyone in the business, but they are all distinct, and marvelously drawn in all their quirky guises, the story is fast paced, which is in and of itself a feat considering all the many subplots and characters, and of course, the scenery, the sense of place, are displayed so well even a midwester who has never left their state will feel he or she knows it well. Wambaugh continues to prove that old adage that things get better with age and time. Everything but Los Angles.
Article first published as Book Review: Harbor Nocturne by Joseph Wambaugh on Blogcritics.
Copyright © 2012 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved