Hollywood Station, by Joseph Wambaugh

Talented crime-writer lets facts about LAPD get in the way of a good story

Jane Jakeman
Wednesday 10 January 2007 01:00 GMT

This is a significant work from a major crime-writer, but a brutally frank book must expect frank criticism. Wambaugh, formerly of the LAPD, writes this novel as a strange mixture of polemic and nostalgia.

The polemic arises because he gives barely fictional disguise to his thesis that policies aimed at the advancement of black and Latino officers have wrought havoc in the police force. In Hollywood Station, when the middle-aged Andi McCrea goes to college, she lets her fellow-students know that she is a policewoman in a paper entitled, "What's wrong with the Los Angeles Police Department?". Almost everything, is her answer, and it's Wambaugh's, too.

The LAPD is chaotic and dangerous, but its troubles stem from the Rodney King incident of 1992, when "a white sergeant ... directed the beating of this drunken, drug-addled African-American ex-convict". Instead, "the ring of a dozen cops should have swarmed and handcuffed the drunken thug". You might think that some in that ring should have prevented the beating, and that King's character is irrelevant. Wambaugh is more preoccupied with the consequences: a commission's findings that the LAPD had some brutal officers, and the appointment of two successive African-American police chiefs. From then, as he describes it, the police were hemmed in by regulations that prevent their efficiency. Yet they don't seem to prevent "pit-bull polo", where police drive around bashing dogs belonging to unsavoury characters. Nor use of the initials ABM (Angry Black Male) to belittle complainants. Nor falsifying arrest statistics so they don't show undue stopping of blacks.

The artistic difficulty in using fiction to put forward overt arguments cripples Wambaugh's enterprise. Instead of being swept along by the story, the reader of this compilation of police anecdotes keeps stopping to gasp, "I never knew that!", or, "What crazy logic!", as appropriate.

And nostalgia? Because Wambaugh is a vivid and fluent writer, this is still a fast-moving story of Hollywood folk, from Armenian gangsters to the addicts who hang around Sunset Strip. But the main characters are full of longing for the golden pre-King days, when, presumably, a quiet spot of black-bashing went unreprimanded. It's a shame to detract from the heroism of some LAPD members by this unbalanced special pleading. The squandering of Wambaugh's undoubted talent only makes it worse.

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