Author Joseph Wambaugh knows cops. He worked 14 years for the Los Angeles Police Department until, with two novels and a nonfiction book to his credit, he quit to write full time.
The Choirboys is a about five sets of partners working the LAPD night shift. They are an oddly-assorted bunch, including military veterans, college graduates, do-gooders and do-others-first types.
They have nothing in common except the shared misery of doing a thankless job directed by incompetent supervisors for a public that hates their guts — and choir practice.
Choir practice is what the boys in blue call their weekly booze and broads bacchanals in MacArthur Park.
Officially, choir practice doesn’t happen because nothing LAPD officials refuse to admit happens, happens.
The guys in the patrol cars are on their own with disastrous results.
Less a novel than a collection of episodes, without Wambaugh’s frequent references to the shooting that would happen later The Choirboys would hardly pass for a novel: 10 main characters are about eight too many.
Wambaugh gets the details right, though. The topics of conversation and the language remind me of working the police beat as a newspaper reporter—and of why I hated working the police beat.
In Airport, novelist Arthur Hailey used a single fictional airport to put in the infrastructure needs of American’s airports in human perspective.
In Wheels he attempts to tell the behind-the-scenes story of the entire auto industry. He can’t squeeze it all into an average-length novel.
Wheels has three main stories: The marriage of Adam Trenton, who is head of General Motor’s newest product launch, and his sexually under-served wife, Erica; the relationship of GM product designer Brett DeLosanto and Barbara Zaleski, an ad agency
creative working for auto industry clients; and Rollie Knight, a black ex-con who gets a job at GM through an employment program aimed at Detroit’s home-grown underclass.
Those three stories would be plenty for a novel, but Hailey brings in two others to give a rounded picture of the industry. In the process, he lets the air out of the main stories.
In its own way, each of the three stories’ endings is as unsatisfactory as a Monday-built automobile.
Hailey’s allusions to current events probably kept 1970’s readers attention, but they they won’t gain much traction with 2018 readers: Today Hailey would need to give free car washes to every reader who finishes the novel.
Wheels by Arthur Hailey
Doubleday, 1971. 374 p.
1971 bestseller #1. My grade: B-
The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight is a comic novel about unfunny topics such as murder written by an angry man.
Author Jimmy Breslin, a brash New York Daily News columnist, invents a gang war between a Mafia don “Papa Baccala” and malcontents who want to get a bigger share of the proceeds: 100 percent is the figure they have in mind.
Instead of liquidating his opposition, Baccala decides to keep them quiet by letting them organize a six-day bike race and keep most of the money.
The opposition, led by Kid Sally Palumbo (Palumbo rhymes with Dumbo, get it?) are total incompetents.
Breslin makes fun of the incompetent crooks he invented, but beneath the sometimes ribald humor is a deep anger against competent political crooks and the intertwined police and justice systems that work against the innocent.
The film rights to Gang were sold before the book came out, which probably accounts for the novel’s sales: The novel is mostly a series of theatrical sight gags, funner seen than read about.
The novel’s lasting contribution is undoubtedly its title: Referring to an organization as “a gang that can’t shoot straight” has become shorthand for systemic incompetence.
Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole is a bleak novel set in in industrial England in the years between the First and Second World Wars.
The technological expertise that had made wholesale slaughter possible in 1914 is being directed toward making wholesale poverty possible in 1934.
Harry Hardman, 14, is through with school. Scorning his parents’ advice, Harry apprentices himself at the Marlowe manufacturing plant for seven years.
Harry sees badge #2510 as his ticket to training and a high-paying job as an engineer.
He learns there’s no training, no ticket to upward mobility.
When he finishes his apprenticeship, he learns one more thing: There’s no job.
With a wife and child to support, Harry does what he has to.
He joins the line of the unemployed.
Love on the Dole lacks the rounded character development we expect in today’s novels, and the dialect takes a bit of getting used to, but those deficiencies only add to Greenwood’s picture of how the deck is stacked against ordinary men in the age of increasingly intelligent machines.
Here’s a passage in which 14-year-old Harry consults the Marxist labor organizer when he first senses Marlowe’s has no intention of training him for a career:
‘You’re part of a graft, Harry,’ [Larry Meath] said: ‘All Marlowe’s want is cheap labour; and the apprentice racket is one of their ways of getting it. Nobody’ll teach you anything simply because there’s so little to be learnt. You’ll pick up all you require by asking questions and watching others work. You see, all this machinery’s being more simplified year after year until all it wants is experienced machine feeders and watchers. Some of the new plant doesn’t even need that. Look in the brass-finishing shop when you’re that way. Ask the foreman to show you that screw-making machine. That can work twenty-four hours a day without anybody going near it. Your apprenticeship’s a swindle, Harry. The men they turn out think they’re engineers same as they do at all the other places, but they’re only machine minders. Don’t you remember the women during the war?’
‘What women?’ Harry asked, troubled by what Larry had said.
‘The women who took the places of the engineers who’d all served their time. The women picked up straightaway what Marlowe’s and the others say it takes seven year’s apprenticeship to learn,’ a wry smile: ‘Still, if you want to be what everybody calls an “engineer”, you’ve no choice but to serve your seven years. I hear that they’re considering refusing to bind themselves in contracting to provide seven years’ employment. There is a rumour about that there aren’t to be any more apprentices. You see, Harry, if they don’t bind themselves, as they have to do in the indentures, they can clear the shop of all surplus labour when times are bad. And things are shaping that way, now,” a grin: ‘You’ve no need to worry, though. You’ve seven years’ employment certain.’
What is most striking about Love on the Dole is now much it feels like 2017 America. If Harry lived in Pennsylvania today, he would be a Trump supporter.
Love on the Dole will let you experience the pain and anger that fuels them.
It may well also foretell what’s ahead in America in the next 20 years.
Penelope Ashe’s novel Naked Came the Strangeris trash.
As story opens Gillian Blake, co-host of radio show Billy & Gilly, has just learned via the services of Ace-High Private Investigators, Inc., that Billy is having an affair with the show’s recently hired assistant producer.
Gilly is incensed.
It was not simply that William Blake had made a mockery of her marriage. Even worse he had made a mockery of her radio show.
Divorce is unthinkable: According to the polls, what attracts the listeners is their belief that the Blakes have the ideal marriage.
Her fans believe, as Gilly observes, “The family that stays together, stays together.”
Gilly decides to get back at William by having affairs with other women’s husbands and breaking up their marriages.
The next 230 pages describe psychologically, anatomically, and physiologically how Gilly goes about it.
The novel has only one good but not redeeming feature: It was set in Baskerville type, which is better than the book deserves.
It deserves Comic Sans.
Naked Came the Stranger by Penelope Ashe
Lyle Stuart, 1969. 255 p. 1969 bestseller #7. My Grade: D.