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Onyx reviews: Harbor Nocturne by Joseph Wambaugh

Dinko Babich is a thirty-two-year-old man of Croatian descent who lives and works in ethnically diverse San Pedro, which is technically part of Los Angeles but is so far on the outskirts, connected only by a narrow stretch of land, that it's almost a world unto itself. It is the site of a busy harbor, where Dinko's father worked and where Dinko now earns a living—when he isn't under suspension for smoking marijuana on the job, that is.

Dinko has few aspirations. His religious mother, with whom he still lives, fears for his soul. He has some shady friends with even shadier confederates. Chief among these is his childhood friend, Hector Cozzo, who thinks of himself as an entrepreneur when he is really little more than a gofer for a Korean thug named William Kim who smuggles in women from overseas to work in his strip clubs. Kim's boss is a Serbian, Pedrag Marcovic, who pretends to be a Russian named Pavel Markov.

Cozzo pays Dinko to drive Lita Medina from one nightclub to another. Dinko is immediately enchanted by the beautiful and mysterious young woman who says she is working in the US illegally so she can send money back to her family in Mexico. Her English is passable, but her dancing skills are severely lacking. Dinko makes excuses to see her again and, when she learns something about her new bosses that jeopardizes her safety, Dinko is the only person she knows who might help.

The various thugs and mobsters who populate Harbor Nocturne have more depth than the cops of Hollywood Station who, over the course of five books, have become caricatures: a couple of surfers known as Flotsam and Jetsam, a wannabe actor called Hollywood Nate, an old cop famous for avoiding time-consuming callouts near the end of a shift, a peppy young female cop who recently shot someone for the first time. They rarely seem serious about their jobs, cracking jokes non-stop. They also tread a narrow line between mocking political correctness and outright racial insensitivity—the kind of thing that has gotten the LAPD in trouble before, most notably with the Rodney King case. Though some of their banter seems far-fetched, Wambaugh—the son of a police officer—bases it on anecdotes he collects from working cops. While these vignettes may be true, sometimes fiction demands more than literal truth. As a result, parts of the novel meander into over-long and ultimately unfunny and meaningless diversions.

Jetsam, who has a prosthetic foot as a result of a car accident, is assigned to go undercover as a client at a massage parlor with connections to a human trafficking ring. The cops hope that he'll be noticed by a Russian with a weird amputation fetish and connections to the operators of a string of illegal enterprises. The plan might work, so long as the drugged-out doctor who performs unlawful amputations stays out of the picture. It's a long shot, but the case puts Hollywood Division on a collision course with Kim and Markov. 

Whereas the previous Hollywood Station novels focused mainly on the cops and robbers, Dinko and Lita's story is front and center for much of the book. Lita is much younger than Dinko, but she is far more mature than he is. As their relationship develops, Dinko suddenly discovers a sense of purpose in his life. Even his mother is smitten by her. His transformation is tad too easy, but their charming love story is the heart and soul of Harbor Nocturne

The book is an unusual blend of humor, romance and tragedy. Veteran Chester Toles has flashbacks from a harrowing case that make him overreact when a similar situation arises. There's nothing funny about human trafficking, either, especially when a shipping container gets stranded at the harbor and all thirteen women inside it suffocate. Wambaugh manages to find a balance among the different aspects of the story most of the time, but the fate of one of the most appealing characters is certain to upset many readers. It's such a tragedy, in fact, that the author pulls his gaze away from the event, as if he's afraid to bear witness to it himself.

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