Wambaugh, Joseph. The Secrets of Harry Bright.

NY: Morrow, 1985.

Wambaugh has a decades-long reputation for turning out well-crafted, often rather light-hearted crime novels. He generally does this by alternating a carefully plotted core narrative with a large quantity of extraneous, or at least tangential, anecdotal material about a large number of characters. Some readers enjoy this approach and some find it annoying.

This yarn is typical, in that its roughly 350 pages would shrink to around 200 if he hewed to a tight narrative — but then it wouldn’t be Wambaugh.

The set-up this time, the core narrative, involves two homicide detectives from Hollywood Station in L.A. who are asked to re-open an eighteen-month-old case out in California’s Coachella Valley. The son of Victor Watson, a very wealthy man, was found on a remote canyon road, burned to death in his father’s Rolls — and shot in the head. The Palm Springs PD has pretty much given up on it, but the victim’s father wants answers: Who murdered his son? So he comes up with Sgt. Sidney Blackpool (who has also lost a son, in a surfing accident) and Det. Otto Stringer, gives them a pile of expense money, and points them toward the desert. Sidney and Otto are both avid golfers and they figure they’ll get in some games at the high-end clubs to which Watson has given them entrée, poke around a little, and have a nice paid vacation. Watson even dangles the possibility of a nice post-retirement security job in front of Sidney. Of course, it doesn’t turn out that way.

The story turns on the ten-man police force of Mineral Springs, which serves as a blue-collar service community for the ritzier developments in the Valley. The Sgt. Bright of the title doesn’t even appear in the story until the very end. He had a stroke before the action ever began and is now in a seedy desert nursing home. But Harry Bright is the “daddy” of the Mineral Springs PD, and even though Paco Pedroza is the boss, he listens to Harry’s advice. It’s largely due to Bright’s recommendations that their crew of third-string almost-losers has come together the way it has. And Harry Bright, strangely enough, has also lost a barely-grown son.

Wambaugh sometimes goes overboard with his metaphors and similes: A Ford pickup “with a transmission whinier than John McEnroe.” Cop weddings are “about as safe as a San Francisco bathhouse.” “I could get more sincerity from a wedding chapel in Las Vegas.” “He looked like a Vincent Price movie.” “As secure as a U-2 flight over Kamchatka, or the U.S. Football League.” “As safe as a Mexican wedding.” And that’s all within just in a couple of pages. And, yeah, a lot of them are badly dated, too. The humor in the first three-quarters of the story, in fact, is often forced and just not terribly funny. But then (also as often happens in a Wambaugh novel), events take a hard turn into the cold, dangerous desert night. Blackpool, who has become more and more desperate to solve the case and and get that job (and perhaps lay his own ghosts), discovers what probably really happened — and it’s not at all what he wants to hear. So the last couple of chapters are by far the best part of the book, but you’ll have to put up with a lot of not particularly successful writing to get there.

Published in: on 15 September 2013 at 5:03 pm  Leave a Comment  
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