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Hollywood Crows
Joseph Wambaugh
Little, Brown and Company 2008
352 pages

Getting through the first two thirds of Joseph Wambaugh 's new (2008) mystery novel, Hollywood Crows, was like walking through sand in stilettos. Often a trial to continue, this was not a book that demanded constant attention by exploding with excitement or slyly drawing the reader in.

Rather, during the seemingly long wait for something of note to happen, it simply felt ordinary.

Hollywood Crows are members of the Divisions Community Relations Office who act as liaisons to the public, handling "soft" complaints, neighborhood disputes, and quality of life issues. The initial street talk, peppered as it is with "bro" and "dude" from the police themselves, sets the tone and leads us to believe we are not dealing with a particularly sophisticated lot.

Granted, the colourful backdrop in Hollywood where quirky and sick are commonplace and an abundance of petty crooks, street people, and embodied cartoon characters provide a voyeuristic foray into lives that are anywhere from unusual to dark and seedy even when criminal activity is decidedly absent.

Armed with plenty of material Wambaugh's imagination creates scene after scene of police calls that range from parking issues to homicide. Although gritty and sometimes horrible, something is missing. Little in the way of a conventional plot, its consistency tying in characters not action, a good chunk of Hollywood crows feels like a collection of visual life-on-the-streets vignettes which would be perfectly suited to a quick and dirty prime time police drama. However, in book form page after page of this begins and quickly gives a choppy can-never-sink-your-teeth-in feel and makes you practically beg for even a bit of sustained interest and excitement.

Even segments that might otherwise evoke reader emotion fail to do so because victims, who we only know in the present moment, remain strangers and this encourages little if any sympathy.

Perhaps that is precisely Joseph Wambaugh's point in Hollywood Crows. Ours is not a neat and tidy world so a realistic portrayal of daily police work consists of a series of unique, sometimes harsh, sometimes ordinary calls which officers efficiently assess, handle, and exit on every shift.

Still, when intersecting threads of a brewing storyline begin to appear, the mysterious undercurrent makes the frustrated reader wish Wambaugh would jump in and run with it but alas, patience is a virtue so at least the promise of a real mystery serves as motivation to continue reading.

So, with a glimmer of light in the distance and the hope that it isn't that of an approaching train, we valiantly press on to happily discover Wambaugh does redeem himself.

Wambaugh can write. His descriptions are often vivid and gritty. His ensemble cast of flawed and vulnerable personalities runs the gamut from dedicated, to eccentric, to intense, to just plain sad, illustrating both the large and small human dramas of daily police life.

The big story creeps in and develops slowly then takes hold and takes over.  The hopeful and persistent reader is finally rewarded with a solid, meaty plotline involving a slimy, volatile nightclub owner who operates his life and business on both sides of the law, and his beautiful, conniving, former stripper wife. The result is a perfect murder and the best revenge with many anxiety provoking, keep you guessing glitches thrown in. It is very good, well thought out, and thankfully satisfying by the final hurrah.

A less liberal use of the vignettes coupled with earlier detailed and intriguing attention to the main story would have resulted in a more robust and fulfilling mystery.

Hollywood Crows could be compared to a big name live concert whose opening act is there to prime the audience but not the act they came to see. The advantage here is you can arrive an hour late to catch the headliner just coming out on stage, have a terrific time, and feel that your money was well spent.

Unfortunately it takes quite a few pages for Hollywood Crows by Joseph Wambaugh to have the same effect.