On Naked City, the old-school cop show, every episode used to end with a voice-of-God narrator saying, "There are 8-million stories in the naked city; you have just seen one of them." Joseph Wambaugh doesn't aim for such quantity (he has maybe 40 interlocking tales here), but he sure knows how to tell compelling stories.
Hollywood Crows is the latest from the master of the modern police story. "Crows" refers to "community relations officers," the cops who do more public relations than police work. It's a plum assignment in Los Angeles, and Wambaugh's novel focuses on officers who work as "crows," and beat cops who want to.
Wambaugh, a celebrated cop turned writer, has been writing immensely enjoyable police procedurals for 30 years. Hollywood Crows never has a dull moment and is populated with an endearing and infuriating cast of characters, much like The Choirboys, one of his early books. We have Flotsam and Jetsam, the surfer-dude patrolmen longing for the posh Crow assignment. There's Hollywood Nate, the officer who hopes to break into the movies. And then there's Ronnie Sinclair, the beautiful young woman all of her male colleagues desire.
Most of the action centers on a dissolving marriage: Ali, the strip club owner, and his scheming wife, Margot. Each of them wants to kill the other, saving their young son from the supposed abuses of the other parent. The plans pull police officers into their nets, for use as shields and patsies. At first, that plot line is comical: Ali is over the top and Margot is a skilled seducer, toying with Hollywood Nate. But the perfect, doomed cop — tortured by the daily tragedies of the job — plays his required role, shattering his life and playing a major role in ending two others.
Sometimes, big-cast mucho-action books are claustrophobic and dull. Not so here. Wambaugh more or less invented this genre, and he still does it better than anyone else.
William McKeen teaches journalism at the University of Florida.