April 2012

Rhythm + Blue

There’s music in the words JOSEPH WAMBAUGH uses to compose his gripping tales of the LAPD’s ways and means



They say it is best that you never meet your heroes. That way you avoid the disappointment that occurs when you find out who they really are. I had no such problem with Joseph Wambaugh. Growing up 3,000 miles from Los Angeles, I became fascinated with the city and its depiction in films and crime novels. I read a lot but nobody more religiously than Wambaugh.

The cop turned author was writing contemporary novels full of grit and humor and street truth. I found them inspiring—and haunting. I can still remember reading The Choir Boys in college and the searing images the story conjured in my imagination. All these years later, I remember the “moaning man” from that book as if I had read the passage yesterday. I was probably too young to understand just what Wambaugh was doing—using the police novel to tell larger stories about ourselves and our world.

At that point, I had not even set foot in Los Angeles—and wouldn’t for another 10 years—but it was a place that came alive in Wambaugh’s stories. His books were entertaining as hell, but they weren’t mere entertainments. They transcended that. They told it like it is.

Here is the assessment of him early on from the New York Times: “Mr. Wambaugh is, in fact, a writer of genuine power, style, wit and originality who has chosen to write about police in particular as a means of expressing his views on society in general.”

Wambaugh has never deviated from that format, and over the decades he has produced a remarkable body of work in both fiction and nonfiction. This month his 21st book is being published, a wonderful meditation on this city and its many cultures. I am glad I got to read it. It once more reveals the secret that the best crime novels are not about how cops work on cases but how cases work on cops. This is the lesson Wambaugh teaches.

The funny thing about writing is you can mentor or be mentored from far away. Teacher and student don’t ever have to meet. It’s all in the words. I learned a lot from reading Joe Wambaugh. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if I hadn’t experienced his books. I didn’t get to meet him until well after I was writing and publishing cop novels myself. On that occasion, he was friendly and supportive—he knew my work almost as well as I knew his.

As I got to know him then and in the years since, I realized we had something in common. Joe may have been a damn good cop, but he’s also a damn good reporter. His efforts to research his novels and keep apprised of everything from police procedure to street slang remain remarkable. At 75 years young, he relentlessly digs for gold. And in that, he continues to mentor me.

The new book, Harbor Nocturne, shows the assured hand of a writer who knows the turf and his characters. It’s full of that gold Wambaugh has mined for four decades. We recently had the chance to chat about it at Musso & Frank—one of Hollywood’s great traditions, whose history is tied closely to the literary history of L.A.

Joe, I am really pleased to meet here, because you are part of the rich history of Los Angeles’ literary heroes. And you are certainly my hero. Let’s start with Harbor Nocturne, the fifth installment in your Hollywood Station series. In this one, you are pushing boundaries—or more like crossing police divisional boundaries. The story stretches to the Harbor Division and San Pedro. What drew you to this new turf?
I felt it had to be different somehow. Harbor Division is unique in many ways: It is an enormous harbor, it brings in billions in terms of cargo to America, and it’s just a completely different world. It’s a part of Los Angeles that is little known even by those who know Los Angeles. Because L.A. needed a harbor, the city put a little strip of [incorporated] land around Figueroa Street all the way down to the harbor area, just to create this place where they could get revenue from the cargo that comes through every year. It’s unique, so I thought I would try to create a story that took advantage of this place and still make it a Hollywood Station novel.

This story seems to draw its energy from the very complex, multiethnic soup that is the city of Los Angeles. You seem to be out front in wanting to chronicle this. It kicks this book up past crime fiction—it becomes more social documentary or social realism. How conscious are you of that when you attack a project?
It’s probably more organic. I don’t know if I sit down and decide to deal with social realism in terms of being a documentarian, but I am certainly interested in L.A. being a melting pot. There are so many tribes here, and it is not assimilating all that well, which creates a lot of conflict—and conflict is of course what we write about. And in Pedro, there are the Croatians, who used to make up the majority of the longshoremen, and Italians and Latinos from all over Latin America. The story of the longshoremen became important to me in this novel.

The title, Harbor Nocturne, has a musical origin. To me, a nocturne is a simple musical piece, but then you read this book, and it is much more complex than that. Where did the title come from?
There is an important scene near the end where a character is dealing in a deadly way with an old friend, and he mentions, “Isn’t the harbor beautiful at night?” And he says, “If I could write music I would write something about the harbor and I would call it Harbor Nocturne.” Night music—it just seemed right. I always loved “Harlem Nocturne,” the piece played so beautifully by Duke Ellington and that I’ve listened to all my life. I don’t know if it came from that or my own feelings from researching at the harbor at night. During the day, it’s this enormously busy place...and yet at night, when all those orange lights go on, it’s weird and beautiful. Maybe if I could write music, I would write something and call it Harbor Nocturne.

The effort it takes to weave all these characters into a story creates a rhythm. There is a music to it that I really appreciate. What do you think is the duty of the writer—to tell an entertaining story and take the reader to another place or to tell something about what is going on in our world, even if it is through the lens of fiction?
I think the latter. Certainly at this point in my career, I should be telling people more than an entertaining story. Of course we must tell entertaining stories, or we are not going to communicate with anybody. But there is also information I’d like to impart—and I learned it by interviewing 50 cops per book. I learned a lot by interviewing the longshoremen. I think it’s important to know what Los Angeles is, what it used to be and how it has changed.

Who is the Oracle?
The Oracle was an important character in the first novel in the series, Hollywood Station. He’s a beloved sergeant who happens to be exactly my age—or would have been if he’d lived. They call him the Oracle for obvious reasons. He was a wise man, and in the novels that followed, they can’t let him go. Cops are superstitious. His photo is on the wall in the roll-call room, and they touch it for luck—almost in the way you go to a holy-water font—before they go out on the streets. So no matter how depressed they get seeing horrible things doing their jobs every night, the Oracle always tried to impress upon them that doing good police work is the most fun they will have in their lives. When things get tough, they always hark back to what the Oracle told them. He is present in all of the books. He is very important to me and to them.

Are you the Oracle?
Oh, no. I was never wise enough to be the Oracle.

I’m not so sure about that.