By LINDA DEUTSCH
LOS ANGELES -- In his new book, "Hollywood Station," Joseph Wambaugh remembers the golden days of his beloved LAPD, when Jack Webb would intone on TV's "Dragnet": "This is the city, Los Angeles, California. I work here ... I'm a cop."
"Today, all we can say is, 'This is the city, Los Angeles California. I work here ... I'm an auditor,"' says one of Wambaugh's characters, a veteran cop expressing the author's resentment of a federal consent decree that has put Los Angeles Police Department officers under constant scrutiny. Burdened with paperwork and looking over their shoulders, Wambaugh suggests they are barely able to focus on doing their jobs well.
In an interview in the Hollywood he writes about, Wambaugh says he was angry at what has become of the LAPD since the 1991 Rodney King beating and the Rampart scandal, in which a group of officers were found to have framed dozens of innocent people. He speaks of a "handful" of bad cops who brought down the wrath of government and spoiled things for the rest of the force.
"They're scared of everything now," he says, reflecting on how some cops try to take the easy way out and avoid confrontations. "The good cop is the one who's proactive, the one that could get complaints. But the good cop takes that risk."
One of his "Hollywood Station" cops says bitterly: "Today, we're just scared little mice stuck in a glue trap."
About the book
Wambaugh's book, his first novel in 10 years, is about the good officers, those who police 17.2 square miles of the nation's second-largest city -- the place he calls the "real," as opposed to "reel," Hollywood.
Where else but in Hollywood would police be called to arrest a guy in a Darth Vader suit for indecent exposure? Where else would they break up a scuffle involving impersonators outside Grauman's Chinese Theater that included a 6-foot-tall Marilyn Monroe drag queen?
Wambaugh talks about this Hollywood almost reverentially.
"If I were a cop now, I'd want to work Hollywood," he says. "More than any other part of LA, there are a lot of shattered dreams here. People come from other places to remake themselves and don't."
Only at the Hollywood Station, decorated with movie posters, would you meet a veteran officer known as "Hollywood Nate," an aspiring screenwriter and actor who loved to work the red carpet events at the Kodak Theater and appeared as an extra in movies whenever he could to earn his Screen Actors Guild card.
His description is pure Wambaugh:
"When Hollywood Nate lay in bed after getting off duty, he had latte dreams and mocha fantasies of life in a high canvas chair, wearing a makeup bib, never dating below-the-line persons, using the word 'energy' at least once in every three sentences and living in a house so big you'd need a Sherpa to find the guest rooms."
And only in the new LAPD would you find two young officers nicknamed Flotsam and Jetsam, one with bleached blond spiky hair, who love surfing even more than police work and refer to each other as "dude."
Memorable women characters
There are female police officers in this book, perhaps the first time Wambaugh has written in depth about women on the force. They are heroes and one officer is even a nursing mother. Tough and soft at the same time, they are among his most memorable characters.
He writes about Russian & eacute;migr & eacute;s who drift into big crimes, methamphetamine addicts who will do anything for a fix and the homeless, who can be both problem and blessing when investigating a crime.
"Hollywood Station" is the No. 1 best seller in Los Angeles and has hit other best-seller lists nationwide. It is already in its third printing with 115,000 copies and is being hailed by his colleagues as a welcome return to his roots.
"This was a book I was waiting for for a long time," said writer Michael Connelly, author of "Echo Park" and the Harry Bosch novels, who credits Wambaugh with being his mentor long before he ever met him.
"If he didn't invent the police novel, he certainly reinvented it. When I sat down to write my LAPD novels, my idea was to take what I learned from Raymond Chandler and Joseph Wambaugh and put them together."
Robert Crais, best-selling author of such police-detective novels as "L.A. Requiem" and "The Forgotten Man," noted that both he and Wambaugh have police officers in their families -- Wambaugh's father and Crais' uncles and cousins.
"I grew up with cops and none of them were like Jack Webb," said Crais. "Wambaugh's fictional cops were human beings, with all the same quirks and fears any of us have. His enormous insight changed the way all of us who came after him approach our work. How could it not? Wambaugh was and is The Man."
Having been the unofficial historian of the LAPD for more than three decades and a cop before that, Wambaugh has written 11 best-selling novels including "The New Centurions," "The Blue Knight" and "The Choirboys." He also wrote five works of nonfiction including, "The Onion Field," which was turned into a major movie -- one of eight books by him to become feature films, TV movies or miniseries.
At 69, Wambaugh is lean and youthful with a sprinkling of salt and pepper in his hair. There's a spring in his step and enthusiasm to spare. He sees "Hollywood Station" as a new beginning, saying he may do what he has never done before, a sequel.
Wambaugh, who created the TV series "Police Story," has an agreement with TV producer David E. Kelley to collaborate on a pilot based on "Hollywood Station." For Wambaugh, this is his own Hollywood dream -- too good to be true for a police sergeant who thought his first book would sell "maybe 100 copies."
But for the moment, one of the kicks in his life is that he lives next door to one of his childhood heroes, 93-year-old singing legend Frankie Laine. After Wambaugh told Laine that "Mule Train" was the first record his parents bought him as a child, Laine gave him a plaque with the single's gold record as a Christmas gift.
"Who could have predicted it?" Wambaugh says. "I was a little kid in the steel town of Pittsburgh listening to an old Victrola and the first song I heard was 'Mule Train.' And now I get the gold record. Imagine that."
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