Harbour Nocturne by Joseph Wambaugh

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Harbour Nocturne by Joseph Wambaugh

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Freaky things happen in Hollywood it's f***ing Hollywood being the local cops general explanation for all of them. But even they are a little taken aback, when one of them is recruited to an undercover op purely on the strength of his prosthetic foot. Meanwhile, in San Pedro a Romeo and Juliet story starts to play out... Cracking crime drama, with a sharp note of realism and an undercurrent of black humour. Strangely satisfying.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: January 2013
Publisher: Head of Zeus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781908800558

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By way of a prelude to the Nocturne, I should offer a heads-up, that the review copy I received is titled Nocturne rather than Harbor (or Harbour) Nocturne. It isn't marked as a proof or advance copy, and having stumbled across other reviews whilst I was reading it (hard to avoid when it makes the Sunday supplements) I'm fairly sure that there are no real changes other than the title. Indeed, one of the jacket illustrations that Google throws up matches mine, but for the additional word – in the English spelling.

So let's assume none of that matters particularly.

The Hollywood Station series is set (no prizes for guessing) in Hollywood. Hollywood is, almost by definition, a bit weird. A full moon is known as a Hollywood moon, because that's when all the weirdoes come out to play. But it's a district that needs to be policed like any other. It has its fair share of RTAs and domestics and sad and lonely people. Not for nothing has the night shift sergeant instituted pizza-rewarded awards for best True Hollywood Romance or Quiet Desperation reports from a given shift. You need a black sense of humour to work the mean streets.

Thaddeus Hawthorne was a 28 year old UCLA graduate who had six years previously discovered (as we all do) that a liberal arts BA degree is great fun to get, but not much practical use when it comes to earning a living. He joined the LAPD. He's sort of on a graduate fast track programme, which appears to work in the US much the same as it does in the UK. It might get you up to sergeant pretty quickly, but from there on out you're on your own. You haven't got the street cred that the older, seasoned guys have, and your college-talk won't wash. Not least because most of them won't understand it.

Which is a two-way street, because right now, Hawthorne is newly inducted into the Hollywood Station and is having to deal with two surfer-bums (who also happen to be genuine, good and respected cops) who are talking to him in words that sound like English, but don't really coagulate into any kind of meaning.

Why these two street cops in particular? Well, they tend to come as something of a pair, but mainly because one of them has a very unusual trait: for both a cop and a surfer: he's missing a foot.

You get the impression that how that happened is in one of the novels you've missed. We're coming in to the Hollywood Station series round about novel five or six. It's not clear which of the author's previous output falls into the group and not wholly important. Certainly this one (pardon the pun) stands on its own two feet.

It is the fact of the prosthetic that is plot-crucial. The bad guy is believed to be suffering from a disorder known as apotemnophilia – a fascination with amputation which may be (but I gather isn't necessarily) related to sexual desire.

The bad guy? Well, it's a crime novel, so there has to be a bad guy. Actually, the place is littered with them. Even the good guys aren't all that shimmering white. At the black end of the spectrum though, we're talking organised crime, smuggling, people trafficking, and who knows what else.

South of the glitz of La-La-Land is San Pedro, one of the world's busiest harbours. Technically part of Hollywood it sees itself as a town apart. The locals feel they're losing their culture to the incomers. The culture is largely Croat. The incomers are Mexican.

Dinko Babich is old-school, but failing to live up to the longshoreman myths of his father's generation. He's currently on yet another suspension for being doped on duty, but he's never really seen the point of the hard work and the unions and on and on. Until he comes across the mysterious Lita Medina. A dancer in a dingy harbour club, she's been spotted by a talent scout for the bigger players up town. An old school friend asks Babich to taxi her to a meeting. Some easy money for a simple delivery job. Only it turns out not to be so easy. Both Babich and Medina get increasingly embroiled in the amputation fetish, drug and people trafficking world that Hawthorne and his surfers Flotsam and Jetsam are looking to crack.

The problem for crime writers these days is that they're no longer allowed to write a one-off novel. It's got to have potential for a multi-book deal. Such is the risk-aversity of modern publishers. The benefit for crime writers, is that if they stumble across that potential by writing a story that creates a 'world' in which they can set a significant amount of their future output, without tying themself to an individual character, they protect their future income, without writing themselves into a corner.

Christie got famously fed up of the odious little man she had created, Dexter had to kill Morse off eventually (although primarily due to age) and Rankin eventually couldn't do any more with Rebus and had to take a break. Even killing them off doesn't always work: remember what happened after Reichenbach!

Wambaugh, however, seems to have avoided the pitfall. Rather than working with a character, he started with an organisation and a culture (the LAPD). A place (Southern California). Places evolve, but retain a kind of identity that can hold a series together through time, in a way that doesn't have an end-date as it does with people.

Like many of the best writers in the field, he knows whereof he speaks. Some do the research… he lived the life and presumably still has the contacts. After a time in the marines he joined the LAPD and served 14 years clawing his way from patrolman to detective sergeant. And like the best writers in the field, he writes very visually. That he influenced the ground-breaking shift in TV police drama that was Hill Street Blues comes as no surprise. This is an author who tells it like it is. He gives credit to named crews for anecdotes and great cop talk.

This is no-frills crime writing. And that's why it works.

The main story arch is pursued menacingly. There are few twists, just enough for a measure of uncertainty. Suspense is more in the vein of who knows what? and will they get there in time, than in the is everything what it seems? mode. What really makes it work as a thoroughly enjoyable book, though, is the background.

When we criticise our favourite cop shows, it's because of the resource allocation. It seems like any team has only one crime at a time. Oh, if only? We know it doesn't work like that. So Wambaugh doesn't play it like that.

Midwatch work their shifts. Some of the crimes have solutions. Some don't. Some follow on from previous episodes. Some don't. Cops have partners… but partners get sick, take holidays, or whatever, you often have to work with whoever's available. Sometimes that's good, sometimes not so much.

There are superstitions and beliefs and insecurities and dreams of a better life.

Whatever the probability or improbability of the stories and plot devices, you can't help but believe that they are real people that are having to deal with them.

For another take on life in the LAPD you could do worse than The Lost Witness by Robert Ellis

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Buy Harbour Nocturne by Joseph Wambaugh at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Harbour Nocturne by Joseph Wambaugh at Amazon.com.


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