One of the richest veins of American popular culture has been the Los Angeles crime novel. Perhaps its leading exponent since Raymond Chandler is a former Los Angeles Police Department detective sergeant named Joseph Wambaugh.
In the early 1970s, Wambaugh began writing bestselling cop novels such as The New Centurions and The Choirboys and true crime tales such as The Onion Field. The 2Blowhards blog explains Wambaugh's cultural importance as follows:
"In writing-history terms, he took the Ed McBain-style police procedural and filled it to bursting with irreverence, heart and despair. He was an innovator too. He introduced big helpings of tragedy and comedy (as well as grit and strung-out high spirits) into the recipe. He's been a major influence on TV and movies—on popular storytelling. When you watch such sprawling, mixed-mode entertainments such as Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, you're seeing shows influenced by and inspired by Joseph Wambaugh."
(Another example of Wambaugh's prescience: more than twenty years ago, he published Lines And Shadows, a non-fiction account of a San Diego undercover police squad's heroic but ultimately vain attempt in the late 1970s to combat the bandits preying on illegal aliens in the chaotic No Man's Land that federal policy was even then allowing to develop on the border.)
Accordingly, it's a noteworthy event when—at the suggestion of James Ellroy ( LA Confidential), one of the many novelists influenced by him—Wambaugh returns to his classic LAPD stomping grounds for the first time in 23 years. In Hollywood Station, the old master has collected a new trove of war stories from 54 cops, making this 340-page novel about the mid-watch shift at the Hollywood police station in June 2006 a terrific read.
LA is the world's most absurd large city, and Hollywood is its funniest neighborhood. After each shift, the cops swap stories to determine who was called out on the evening's most memorable BHI (Bizarre Hollywood Incident). Example: being summoned to the famous courtyard of Grauman's Chinese Theatre, where street people garbed in movie legend costumes pose for tourists' cameras, by an ersatz Marilyn Monroe (6'-3" and with a five-o'clock shadow), who witnessed, in a dispute over tourist-hustling turf, Batman cold-cocking Spiderman. While they're at it, the cops also haul in, on cocaine charges, Tickle Me Elmo.
Wambaugh's cop-heroes aren't saints. When bored one night, two aging surfer dude officers drive down to an apartment building full of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang members to play "pit bull polo." The Salvadoran gang-bangers let their vicious dogs run wild, terrorizing all the children in the neighborhood. So the partners cruise slowly around the building a few times until the beasts are in a frenzy. Then they play a few chukkers of pit bull polo, leaning out the police car windows and swinging their batons like mallets.
Hollywood Station is mellower, less despairing than Wambaugh's early masterpieces. As he reflects: "Doing good police work is the most fun these cops will ever have in their entire lives." And he's finally learned to appreciate the female half of the human race.
Still, Hollywood Station has a serious, even angry side. Wambaugh is disgusted by the demeaning and debilitating federal civil rights consent decree the once-proud LAPD has been forced to operate under since the Ramparts scandal of the late 1990s. He notes it "subjects [cops] to mountains of paperwork, mind-numbing audits and oppressive oversight."
Wambaugh points out the great irony, utterly lost on the liberal LA Times, which relentlessly hyped the brouhaha leading to federal interference: the handful of criminal-cops at the heart of the Ramparts "racism" scandal were all minorities. (Indeed, Denzel Washington's Oscar-winning performance as a murderous rogue policeman in the 2001 movie Training Day is largely modeled on Rafael Perez, the Puerto Rican gangsta-policeman who set off the scandal by framing his fellow cops to reduce his sentence— a transparent tactic that the L.A. Times, in its fervor to tar the LAPD as racist, fell for hook, line, and sinker. Here's my review of the film and my interview with Perez's lawyer.)
Under the consent decree, to show they aren't racially profiling, LA cops in each division must stop whites as much as they stop blacks or Latinos … "even though there were none around." Wambaugh explains that, to provide the politically-correct paperwork demanded by the Department of Justice,
"LAPD officers were inventing white male suspects … In one inner-city division, there was a 290 percent increase in non-Hispanic white male nighttime pedestrian stops, even though nobody had ever seen a white guy walking around the 'hood at night. Even with a flat tire, a white guy would keep riding on the rims rather than risk a stop."
The best thing that's happened to LA in this decade was that the last mayor, a white liberal Democrat named James Hahn, courageously refused to rehire the control freak black police chief Bernie Park (who, according to Wambaugh, "He came to be known as Lord Voldemort by street cops who'd read Harry Potter"). Instead, Hahn brought in the most respected top cop in the country: William Bratton, who had garnered so much praise as the NYPD chief that his jealous boss, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, dumped him.
Not surprisingly, appointing the best man in the country cost Hahn the 2005 election by busting up the fragile black Democrat-white Republican coalition that had helped him beat former MEChA and ACLU functionary Antonio Villaraigosa in 2001. Outraged by the dissing of a black chief, African-American voters deserted Hahn for Villaraigosa—who recently rewarded them by easing out the white fire chief and replacing him with a black. As Wambaugh says, "Race affected everything in Los Angeles, from top to bottom…"
Eventually, Hollywood Station's entertaining vignettes coalesce into a plot. The patrol officers and detectives struggle to unravel felony murders committed by an Armenian immigrant named Cosmo and his Russian prostitute girlfriend Ilya. No doubt "doing jobs Americans won't do", this enterprising pair have moved up the risk-reward curve from fencing credit card numbers stolen from mailboxes by crystal meth addicts to knocking over jewelry stores and ATM cash deliveries.
This is another example of Wambaugh's sharp eye. As land prices in LA have reached absurd levels, the traditional demographic sources of criminals find themselves under economic pressure. LA's once expansive black community is increasingly squeezed into a sliver between the irresistible force of the Hispanic influx from East LA and the immoveable object of the wealthy white-Asian beach suburbs. As a result, many blacks have decamped to the exurbs or Atlanta.
In the last couple of years, even this local Latino illegal immigration tidal wave has apparently finally started to peter out as the Mexicans and Central Americans have fanned out toward the rest of the country looking for higher wages and lower living costs.
Increasingly visible in LA today is a broad group of immigrants better able to withstand the expense: white men with deep, gruff accents, often sporting gold chains, from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union.
The good news is that LA doesn't have a lot of fundamentalist Muslims … so far. LA's white immigrants from Western Asia have seldom been from the Muslim masses. Instead, they are more often from minorities rather exotic even in that part of the world. For example, my wife used to browse at a boutique owned by the Abdul family, who are, strange as it may seem, both Arab and Jewish (like their daughter Paula, the American Idol judge).
Patriarchal family discipline means these new immigrants can pack three or four generations, plus some in-laws and cousins, into a single-family home until their strong small business skills let them strike it rich. And the contempt for the law they learned in the crooked dictatorships back home means that they often pay little attention to costly nuisances like taxes and regulations. Immigrant solidarity and strong family loyalties ensure that, like the Sicilians before them, if they turn to organized crime, they're good at it.
The Armenian and Lebanese Christians who immigrated to California by the mid-1920s cutoff have assimilated well. But, even if we were to start restricting immigration again now, it will take a few difficult generations to Americanize the latest arrivals from that large section of the world.
(And if we don't start now…)
In the meantime, importing so many new immigrants from so many violently uncooperative "low trust" cultures (see my new article Fragmented Future in The American Conservative on how Los Angeles came in dead last in Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam's survey of social trust) will ensure that LA remains a bottomless source of bizarre and blood-curdling cop stories for many future Joseph Wambaugh novels.