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Book Review: Harbor Nocturne by Joseph Wambaugh

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There may just be no writer alive who more accurately writes L.A. in all its ravaged beauty than Joseph Wambaugh. He vividly conveys the grit with biting observations of the denizens who populate Los Angeles and the surrounding area, and often with an extravagance that any Angelino could tell you isn’t extravagance at all. Los Angeles may just be the one place on earth where truth IS stranger that fiction. If his bad guys seem over the top to the reader, then the reader has never spent any significant time in L.A.–because in L.A. over the top is a way of life.

Same with Wambaugh’s portrayal of cops. And he should know, he spent 14 years as one of those cops. This extravagance, often displayed in what might seem parody, with liberal doses of satire, dark humor, and grit is especially apparent in his Hollywood Station series which began in 2006 and introduces the multi-ethnic mix of police characters in the Wilcox Avenue station as well as the roiling melting pot of the general population. He followed up Hollywood Station with 2008s Hollywood Crows: A Novel, amazingly his first sequel. Harbor Nocturne continues the tale of those cynical, often humorous blue collar working stiffs whose job it is to police the wackiest city on earth. Where else would a street cop be required to referee a fight between Spiderman and Ironman after Captain America calls 911? Where else would a street cop hold an impromptu version of Jeopardy, complete with answers required in the form of questions, with a bunch of drunks as the contestants and the outcome determining who went to jail for the night.

But, and don’t miss this point, all of these characters are actually supporting characters, even Dinko Babich, the son of a Croat immigrant, a second generation longshoreman and a dope smoking slacker, and his star crossed lover Lita Medina, an illegal Mexican exotic dancer who can’t dance, can’t speak English, but is oh so beautiful and probably needs saving. No, the real star of the book; the real hero–and villain–of the piece is Los Angles itself, and its stepchild of a suburb, San Pedro (pronounced by the cognizanti “San Pee-dro,” not “Pey-dro” ) which is only nominally connected to L.A. proper by that umbilicus of a freeway, The Harbor freeway.


Dinko is on suspension by the union and his employer for having gotten caught high and with pot while on the job. His money is running low and he still has a good number of weeks before he can go back to the job. He runs into a shady friend from high school, Hector Cozzo, who sports a mullet haircut and a comical Al Pacino look from “Scarface.” He also carries business cards that say “Facilitator and Entrepreneur,” while telling Dinko he is a talent scout for strip clubs. Cozzo asks Dinko to do him a favor–for a couple hundred dollars. Pick up a new dancer, Lita and deliver her to the Hollywood strip club owned by William Kim and his Serbian cum Russian business partner, Pavel Markov, himself an image-conscious 70-year old with an Elvis pompadour.

Kim and Markov have their finger in many criminal pies, one of which involves human slavery, smuggling women into the country in shipping containers, including the one found with the 13 dead Asians on the very same docks where Dinko usually earns his paycheck.

Meanwhile, the men and women of Hollywood Station are on the trail of Kim/Markov for running a prostitution ring from a massage parlor. But when the sting goes totally wrong, and that avenue looks like a dead end, and the cops start to think that the dead Asians in the shipping container might be connected to Kim and Markov. Especially when a dancer whose sister was one of the girls in the container turns up dead after having been last seen with Kim. The dead girl was a roommate of Lita’s and Dinko sets out to save Lita.

The story, naturally is a police procedural, but in a way that only Wambaugh can, the genres get mixed. There is the romance that develops between Lita, a victim of circumstance trying to make money to send to her mother and younger siblings in an obscure Mexican village ravaged by drug gangs, then there are the many scenes of real life police work as they patrol the streets of Hollywood and Los Angles and uncover gambling, theft, and a very odd sex trade in–of all things–apotem-nophilia (the desire for the amputation of a healthy limb or limbs). There are elements of the typical mystery, elements of noir, which seems like it was invented for Los Angles in all of its cynical spot lights, and elements of the thriller genre as well.

I don’t know that Wambaugh has ever written a weak book, but Harbor Nocturne surely is one of the best–it’s fast-paced, and the plot and storyline are not just topical but cover many, many, topical subjects. The characters are many, but Wambaugh can probably keep his many characters juggling as anyone in the business, but they are all distinct, and marvelously drawn in all their quirky guises. The story move along quickly, which is in and of itself a feat, considering all the many subplots and characters. And of course, the scenery and sense of place are displayed so well that even a mid-westerner who has never left their state will feel he or she knows it well. Wambaugh continues to prove the old adage that things get better with age and time. Everything but Los Angeles.

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About The Dirty Lowdown

I was born in Pomona, California at a very young age. I had a pretty normal childhood…or I was a pretty normal child hood if mom is telling the story. I was a paperboy and washed cars. I was a soda fountain jock-jerk and a manic mechanic but my first real job was as a labor organizer in a maternity ward. Then, because of the misjudgment of a judge I spent nearly 10 years in the service of our country mostly on KP duty. Our country sure turns out a lot of dirty dishes. I am a past master at pots and pans. They eventually recognized my real talent and let me wander around some very unfriendly places carrying a big radio that didn’t work. Along the way I took up the bass guitar, jotting down stories, electronic engineering and earned a degree in advanced criminal activities. I spent most of my adult life, if you can call it that, working in the I.T. industry, which I was particularly suited for since we worked in rooms with no windows. On and off I taught in colleges, universities and reform schools as a student teacher… I like smog, traffic, kinky people, car trouble, noisy neighbors, and crowded seedy bars where I have been known to quote Raymond Chandler as pickup lines. I have always been a voracious reader, everything from the classics, to popular fiction, history to science but I have a special place in my heart for crime fiction, especially hard-boiled detective fiction and noir. I write a book and music review blog for all genres at The Dirty Lowdown. And another dedicated to Crime Fiction and all things Noir called Crimeways. It’s named after the magazine that appeared in the Kenneth Fearing classic, The Big Clock. There I write scholarly reviews of the classic hard boiled, noir and crime fiction books from the 20's through today. Mostly I drool over the salacious pictures on the covers. I also write for Tecnorati/BlogCritics where i am part of a sinister cabal of superior writers.