Review

Harbor Nocturne

by Joseph Wambaugh

The author of 20 bestsellers, Joseph Wambaugh stamps HARBOR NOCTURNE with a trademark gritty style that both fascinates and repels readers. If you accept up front that the detail surrounding the everyday lives of Wambaugh's Los Angeles cops is sometimes unsettling, it becomes possible to enjoy the book's storyline. The novel opens with an introduction to the chief players in the Hollywood Division of the LAPD. Supervised by a young sergeant named Thaddeus Hawthorne, a team composed of Officer Britney Small, a pair of surfer cops known as “Flotsam and Jetsam” and numerous back-up players is set to take on a sting operation out of the precinct.

"Known for his razor-edge police dialogue and gritty vignettes, Wambaugh succeeds in harnessing readers to an emotional story about friendship and love gone astray."

The operation in question deals with a group of Armenian and Asian gangs based in the San Pedro harbor district. The gangs have been smuggling young illegals into the country and employing them as dancers and prostitutes, and the police have targeted the shady business dealings of a massage parlor called Shanghai Massage as the subject of their investigation. As it turns out, though, Shanghai Massage and its pimp owner may be involved in more areas of illegal trafficking than just prostitution. Hawthorne also has reason to believe that a wealthy Russian client of the parlor has connections to Dr. Maurice Montaigne, a medical practitioner infamous for the underground amputations he allegedly performed in his Tijuana clinic. Hawthorne thus aims to use Jetsam --- an amputee --- as bait for the sting: Jetsam will visit Shanghai Massage as a client in order to get closer to the rich Russian with the amputation fetish. 

Meanwhile, we meet Hector Cozzo, a local boy with a reputation for trouble and ties to some of the harbor gangs. Hector is a small-time crook with big aspirations. He offers a one-time errand job to his childhood friend, longshoreman Dinko Babich, of accompanying a young Mexican girl named Lita Medina Flores to an interview with a harbor nightclub owner for a job as a dancer. Dinko’s Slavic upbringing has conditioned him to harbor a prejudice against Mexicans, but the girl's innocent beauty throws his beliefs into question.

Wambaugh’s characters are drawn with incredible realism. Vivid verbal descriptions of an off-duty Flotsam and Jetsam riding the crest of a wave authenticate their “surfer” identities. Even Wambaugh's "bad boys" possess character traits that enhance their credibility. Hector dreams of big money, but stays true to his roots and maintains his friendship with Dinko. Dinko, on the other hand, is sympathetic because he is still a child at heart. His relationship with Lita turns Wambaugh's novel into something more than a police drama --- it's a tender love story as well. Dinko’s abandoning of his childlike tendencies in exchange for a real work ethic gives the reader reason to cheer that the American dream is still alive.

Wambaugh also keeps readers alert by alternating the action scenes of the novel between the Hollywood Precinct and the San Pedro harbor area. For those who savor the nastier side of police procedurals, Wambaugh relishes gritty detail, at times almost overindulging in it. He carefully describes the routine activities of police life to help his readers envision how even the most minor call can lead to a dangerous confrontation, especially in the Hollywood Precinct. In HARBOR NOCTURNE, for instance, the entire precinct becomes involved before the plot behind the prostitution ring operated by Shanghai Massage is unravelled. Often, the language and physical action is somewhat brutal. The rough banter of the officers, a quality many of the author's fans find endearing, gives them an exciting edge. Wambaugh's entertaining yet cutting verbiage has rightfully earned him the title “father of the modern police novel.”

Known for his razor-edge police dialogue and gritty vignettes, Wambaugh succeeds in harnessing readers to an emotional story about friendship and love gone astray.

Reviewed by Judy Gigstad on July 6, 2012

Harbor Nocturne
by Joseph Wambaugh

  • Publication Date: April 3, 2012
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Mysterious Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802126103
  • ISBN-13: 9780802126108