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Onyx reviews: Hollywood Crows by Joseph Wambaugh

Starting in the 1970s, the look and feel of television crime dramas veered away from the sterile, clean-cut version portrayed in shows like Dragnet, in part due to the gritty realism Joseph Wambaugh depicted in classic novels like The Choirboys and The Blue Knight. As both the son of a cop and an officer himself at the time, he had an insider's perspective on the profession. He knew how the job affected the officers' lives, and how their personal lives affected the way they performed their duties.

Wambaugh hasn't been a particularly prolific writer. Hollywood Crows is only his third book in the past decade, including a non-fiction work and a previous novel, Hollywood Station, featuring an oddball group of officers who patrol one of the weirdest beats in the nation: Hollywood, California. The department is still operating under onerous federal restrictions placed on it after the Rampart scandal. Gone are the days when crude, rude and obnoxious cops could be creative about their approach to their jobs. They now have to live up to a code of conduct and have less independence about how they enforce the law, which makes them less interesting as fictional characters.

Among the men and women in blue working out of Hollywood Division are the obligatory seasoned veteran, the wannabe actor who has done a few bit parts in television movies, a pair of surfer dudes who speak gibberish even on the job, a bigoted trashmouth, a smoking-hot Asian woman, and a single mother. In fact, the cast consists primarily of superficial stereotypes. Wambaugh seems to have lost his interest in mining his officers to any significant depth. And, while Hollywood Crows has a (slight) story arc that carries through from the first page to the last, most of the book consists of vignettes that sound like amusing anecdotes Wambaugh gathered during visits with his old pals at the police department or over drinks at a cop bar. The emphasis isn't on police procedure, but rather on the daily grind.

The eponymous "crows" are members of the CRO, the Community Relations Office, devoted to handling quality of life issues. Illegally parked cars that block right of ways. Noise complaints. "Frequent fliers"—lonely people looking for company, even if it comes in the form of a police officer responding to one of their many calls. It's a cushy job, free of many of the hazards of regular patrol, but it's not for everyone. The crows don't often get to do "real" police work. They issue citations and call in the investigative divisions for cases that require…investigation.

Divorcee Ronnie Sinclair and Hollywood Nate, the aspiring actor, have been recently assigned to the CRO. While handling a parking complaint, Nate, who spends his off hours trying out for bit parts in made-for-TV movies and spying on a group of down-at-the-heels entertainment dinosaurs, meets Margot Aziz, a beautiful woman in the middle of an ugly divorce battle with Ali Aziz, a strip club owner who contributes freely to police charities in an effort to raise his standing in the community.

Margot's flirtatiousness addles Nate's mind. She has plans for Nate (or his fellow officer Bix Ramstead, whichever she can get to first), but not the kind Nate is hoping for. She accuses Ali of threatening to spirit their five-year-old son out of the country. She makes sure her complaints become a matter of police record as support for her plan to get rid of her husband. Ali is equally nefarious, both in his profession and in his plans for Margot. He would rather not give up half of his considerable fortune to his wife in a divorce settlement. They're a couple who deserve each other, neither one believing that several million dollars is enough and twice that amount would be better.

One of the book's most interesting characters is Leonard Stilwell, a crack addict who comes up with one hair-brained scheme after another to raise money for his next fix. For a while, he seems to be operating independently of the book's main story until Ali offers to pay him to break into his house (occupied by Margot), supposedly to steal some documents pertaining to his business. Leonard's shenanigans would be amusing if they weren't so desperately sad.

Thus begins an inevitable convergence of events. There's not much suspense about the outcome, even if people's careers and lives are destroyed in the process. The Aziz affair feels like a plot deemed necessary to turn Wambaugh's collection of anecdotes into a novel. This makes Hollywood Crows feel lightweight, especially when compared to early books in the author's career.

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