Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Freaks and Tweakers in Wambaugh’s Return to Los Angeles Cops in "Hollywood Station"

(This interview was originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in December 2006)

In 1971, an active-duty Los Angeles police sergeant named Joseph Wambaugh published “The New Centurions,” a profane and grim novel focusing on the cops who ruled the City of Angels. Wambaugh’s book revolutionized the modern police novel, writing of the heroism of flawed men who drank too much, had marriages going into the toilet and dealt with the daily boredom and sudden horrors of one of the roughest police jobs in the United States.

Wambaugh’s other best-selling LAPD novels soon followed, including “The Choirboys” and “The Black Marble.” In 1983, he published “The Glitter Dome,” saying it was his last LAPD novel. He moved on to a successful career writing true crime books and other bestselling novels.

After 23 years, Wambaugh is back with “Hollywood Station” (Little Brown, $25), a viciously funny and angry novel that brings the LAPD into the 21st century. The police department has been battered by riots and scandals, and officers have their hands tied by a federal supervision program, a “federal consent decree,” that buries them in paperwork and stifles proactive police work. Women have entered the force in large numbers and have proven themselves to be as tough as the men. Wambaugh is back in rare form. The cops are still very flawed, divorce is still rampant, but the gallows humor that gets them through the night is still razor sharp. For the cops in Wambaugh’s new novel, Hollywood in a land of low lifes and hustlers, preying on the tourists that come to the area and each other. Burned-out tweakers, slang for people addicted to methamphetamine, look for the latest scam. A mail theft leads to a jewelry robbery, Russian mobsters and grisly murders.

Wambaugh, 69, was born in Pennsylvania. He served on the LAPD from 1961 to 1974. He has written 17 novels and nonfiction works. “The Onion Field,” about the murder of a policeman, was made into an acclaimed movie of the same name. Wambaugh spoke to freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from his home in San Diego, where he lives with his wife.

Q. Why did you stop writing about the LAPD and why did you return to the subject 23 years later?

A. As a writer, I felt like I had said everything I could say about the LAPD. James Ellroy (the crime writer) kept asking me when I was going to write about the LAPD. again. After three or four times of asking me, I thought the crazy man might be right, that I might be the man to write about the ‘consent decree’ in novel form. What sealed me for doing the book was a true anecdote I later used in the novel. Nowadays, they have to investigate every police complaint thoroughly. A woman obsessed with an officer came in and said that he had stolen her ovaries. I assure you it was investigated to the max and they never found the ovaries.

Q. The Hollywood Station is run by “The Oracle,” a humane sergeant with almost 50 years on the job. What does he mean to you?

A. The Oracle could well have been in my police academy class (in 1961). We would have been the same age, 69. He became for me an emblem of the end of an era in policing.

Q. Have the criminals in Hollywood changed much in the 32 years since you retired?

A. It’s the same criminals, but the extent of the methamphetamine scourge is huge. When I was a cop, who would have thought of identity theft and putting glue traps into mailboxes to steal mail to consummate identity theft?

Q. The Hollywood you portray is full of Darth Vaders and Rhett Butler impersonators in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. What is the true Hollywood like?

A. The streets of Hollywood have this incredible subculture--the tweakers and the guys around the subway ready to sell you anything you want. On the night of the Oscar’s, it is all glitz and glamour, but then they roll up the red carpet and it’s seedy old Hollywood again.

Q. You return to your patented technique of mixing boredom and humor with sudden horror. In one incident, a hypochondriac cop is driving his partner crazy as they are on patrol. The two men then encounter every cop’s nightmare-- two horribly abused children, whose missing mother is most likely dead. Could you explain the sequence?

A. I call it pulling the rug out. The reader is going along, having cop fun. Bang! Cop horror Everyday cop horror is something they might find behind every door they open. That’s the kind of thing a cop takes home, even when they try not to.

Q. Women cops grab the center of your novel. There is Budgie, a tough cop who is still breast-feeding. There is Mag, a short but fearless officer, who gets brutally beaten by a pimp when she is assigned to an undercover prostitution detail. How did the women influence your novel?

A. I didn’t realize how much they’d taken over the book until reviewers pointed it out. Women cops make up about 20 percent of the force now. In my day, it wasn’t like that. When I was interviewing cops for the new book, the women gave the best interviews. Firstly, they are more verbal than they guys, Secondly, they are not afraid to reveal their intimate feelings.

Q. What effect has the federal oversight program had on the cops in the LAPD?

A. Nowadays, L.A. cops worry more about paperwork that doing police work. There were examples of cops falsifying reports of white suspects in black and Hispanic neighborhoods to avoid being accused of racial profiling.

Q. Word on the street is that the producer David E. Kelley, of “Ally McBeal” and “Boston Legal” fame, is trying to sell “Hollywood Station” as a TV series. Is that true?

A. He and I will co-write the pilot, if he sells it to TV. His shows are edgy and he has a bent sense of humor like I do.

Q. How do LA cops view Hollywood?

A. Hollywood cops are very proud of their area. They see it as the heart of Los Angeles. But when there’s a full moon in Hollywood, the Wolf Man literally does come out in front of Grauman’s.

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