Wednesday, January 31, 2007

HOLLYWOOD STATION by Joseph Wambaugh

Quercus, 2007, ISBN 9781847240248, £14.99

It’s been a long time since we saw anything from Wambaugh, and even longer since he had such a strong presence in UK bookstores. But Quercus – quickly emerging as one of the strongest new publishing houses out there – have really pushed his new book hard and it deserves this confidence: Hollywood Station is one hell of a novel.

Wambaugh’s sardonic sense of humour remains intact and, it seems, his dialogue has somehow got even better during his absence. The book opens with pure dialogue: two cops discussing the game of “pitbull polo” which certain mounted officers may play in the projects. The thing is, at first this game sounds ludicrous, but then as you’re pulled into Wambaugh’s world you realise the desperate truth that the work of HollyWood PD may be even darker and more ludicrous than you ever suspected.

Wambaugh – like Elmore Leonard and Ed McBain – is at his best when he is least concerned with “plot” and setting his characters up like pinballs to play against each other. The best example of this is, of course, Wambaugh’s most famous novel, The Choir Boys against which Holly Wood Station plays extremely favourably. At first all the different strands seem unconnected, but soon everyone’s on this beautifully charted collision course and while there’s no “grand finale” exactly, this only adds to the heightened sense of reality. Really, it’s a pleasure getting lost with these guys on the nightly trawl through Hollweird.

There are a number of writers have attempted this kind of novel in recent years. But no one tells it like Wambaugh, because he never condemns or condones his characters. He simply lets them be. Even his criminals can have an odd kind of dignity or a quiet and empathetic desperation to them. And the cops are never less than human. Even the most heroic are frayed at the edges, hanging on in the job as best they can and dealing with the shit they see and can only sometimes understand.

One of the best moments occurs later on in the novel when two female cops go out with vice to bust guys looking to hook up with prostitutes. It starts out as darkly amusing, with some of the saddest and most desperate Johns displaying such pathetic enthusiasm – even after being busted – and then takes a beautifully timed turn for the worse, making it hard not to cry out like the whole scene just happened in front of you.

And that’s Wambaugh’s power – making his world seem absolutely real. For all the absurdities (the wonderful scene where Batman mugs Spiderman outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the only witnesses are the Elvises) there’s an absolute grounded reality to the way the cops try and control the world about them and the way that they are in turn controlled by that world. There is no desperate “end of the world” plot here, no artificial ticking bomb. Wambaugh shows us that character and situation trump “high concept” any day.

In his dedication, Wambaugh thanks James Ellroy for encouraging this “return to LA roots” and if that’s the case, we should all be thanking him, because Hollywood Nights is a fantastic novel and a reminder – if we ever forgot – of just how good the police procedural can be when handled by someone who truly understands the power and nature of the form.

Russel D McLean for, 31/01/07