Friday, December 30, 2016

Review of The Choirboys by Joseph Wambaugh (1975, Orion)

Los Angeles, 1974.  The night patrolmen of Wilshire Division in central Los Angeles work an eight-hour shift, dealing with the underbelly of society – the bad, the mad, the schemers, the downtrodden, and their victims – as well as their bureaucratic bosses who seem more interested in their career trajectories than their fellow officers or the city they serve.  To let off steam, ten of them meet occasionally in MacArthur Park at the end of the shift, along with a couple of overweight cop groupies who work as cocktail waitresses, for ‘choir practice’ – quickly getting drunk on shaken-down booze, fooling around, sharing their night’s adventures and gossip, and venting their frustrations.  One night, however, choir practice ends in tragedy with a fatal shooting that threatens all their careers.

There’s a reason why a ‘best reads of a year’ list should be published in January of the following year.  In this case, the reason is The Choirboys.  Set in 1974 in central Los Angeles, the tale follows the lives of five pairs of patrolmen working the night shift over a six-month period, culminating in a fatal shooting in MacArthur Park, where the men gather periodically to get drunk and let off steam.  The shooting and its fallout form the hook of the story, but the bulk of the novel consists of a series of vignettes related to each pair of patrolmen; their work dealing with the underbelly of Los Angeles society, their interactions with their bosses and each other, and their personal lives.  In essence, the narrative is an extended piece of contextualisation leading up to the MacArthur shooting, as well as a stinging social critique of the ills of society, its causes and the responses, and the nature of policing and police management.  The book was written during Wambaugh’s last serving year as a Los Angeles police officer before he left to become a full-time writer, and it clearly draws on his own experiences and frustrations working a beat and dealing with the administration, as well as the stories and legends circulating among cops.  The result is a fascinating, multi-layered story of ten men struggling to be the thin-blue line, upholding the law in a society creaking with inequalities, abuse and crime, while also trying to keep their own lives from tipping over the edge.  Their safety valve is ‘choir practice’ – a gathering in MacArthur Park at the end of their shift in which they get drunk and vent.  The characterisation and social relations excellent, with Wambaugh fleshing out fully-dimensional personalities who form an uneasy and fractious alliance.  The vignettes and story arc are compelling and realistic.  And the prose and voice are engaging, blending serious social commentary with black humour and tragi-comedy.  Indeed, much of the story is dark in focus, dealing with tragic situations, though Wambaugh balances the pathos with some mirth and genuine laugh-out-loud moments.  At times, the story is a little over-extended, and Wambaugh exaggerates his critique by focusing on a mixed group of screw-up cops tainted by misogyny, racism, violence, corruption and other vices, but there’s no getting away from the fact that The Choirboys is a brilliant novel that works on many levels.  A thoughtful, insightful, critical and entertaining read.  


5 comments:

Dana King said...

I read it for the first time a couple of years ago. It's the only single book I can thank of that had a direct and conscious influence on my writing, with the possible exception of THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE. Truly a brilliant book.

Mathew Paust said...

I read it many moons ago, was bowled over, then, a few years later, read James Ellroy's series and was blown away. Something about L.A. maybe, or maybe the moon was just right. Maybe time to revisit Choirboys.

Rob Kitchin said...

Agree with you both, a very good read and plenty to think about and learn re. writing crime fiction. I keep meaning to re-read some of the earlier Ellroy books; maybe I'll get to it this year.

Dana King said...

I'm 3/4 of the way through the LA Quartet and Ellroy's writing bows me away. The plots can be a bit much, but there's a great deal to absorb in the writing and voice.

Rob Kitchin said...

It must be 20 years since I read the LA Quartet. It might be time to read it again in full. I couldn't get into the Underworld series; the writing was too staccato and sparse.