As long as there have been cops, there have been cop stories. The best of these stories are the ones written by the cops themselves — and by the crime reporters who cover them. There is no substitute for a hands-on, eyewitness account of what life on the street is really like for the men and women who risk their lives to keep our communities safe. Having served 18 years on the unforgiving streets of Compton, Calif. — and having written my own book about the experience — I can appreciate an honest cop tale well told.
Hemingway said, "First, get the weather right." In a good cop story, the weather is the feeling of the 'hoods, the truthfulness of the language, and the sense of fear, accomplishment and pride that are the constants of a cop's career. Only someone who has been there in body, mind and soul can get that right.
Memoirs Of Vidocq: Master Of Crime
By Eugene Francois Vidocq, paperback 433 pages, AK Press, list price: $18
In what may be the first police autobiography ever written, Eugene Francois Vidocq's memoirs read like a combination of Houdini, Sherlock Holmes and J. Edgar Hoover. Once a criminal who escaped from several prisons, Vidocq became a police detective, founded the French Surete in 1812, created the first private detective agency and is sometimes credited with inventing the sciences of fingerprinting, crime scene investigation and ballistics. Vidocq kept extensive files on France's leading social and political figures, and when his memoirs were published in Paris in 1828, they caused a sensation — making him the world's most notorious detective. A master of disguise, interrogation and the use of informants, Vidocq's name became synonymous with sleuthing, and he was later cited by Balzac, Victor Hugo, Herman Melville and James Joyce.
By Will Beall, paperback 400 pages, Riverhead Trade, list price: $14
Will Beall sets this novel in South Central Los Angeles' toughest precinct, the 77th Division, which serves a quarter-million citizens. An LAPD gang officer, Beall flavors his narrative with Chicano street buzzwords and black gang argot. Rex dramatizes the changes that have taken place in the department since the departure of Chief Darryl Gates, whom Beall regards as the last chief not subject to the whims of the mayor's office. Making it clear that the epidemic of crime that infests the 77th also corrupts the cops who are fighting it, Beall presents an LAPD that is as far from Jack Webb's Dragnet as it is possible to imagine. His depiction of the methods street cops must use to deal with dope peddlers and gangbangers is gritty and realistic, and he paints a vivid and disturbing portrait of the Mexican mafia's criminal control of the streets. L.A. Rex bristles with drama and digs deep into the psyches of cops assigned to the hell of the 77th.
By Michael Connelly, paperback 304 pages, Vision, list price: $7.99
Michael Connelly's main character, Harry Bosch, is the sort of dedicated, tenacious cop that most LAPD officers want to be, but so few are able to become. L.A. cops learn early on that the city's politics and cultural diversity play a large part in law enforcement — and Connelly, a former Los Angeles Times crime reporter, is able to capture the contradictory character of Los Angeles. Bosch is a Vietnam veteran born to a prostitute who was murdered in Hollywood. His father was a prominent and respected Los Angeles attorney whom he did not meet until later in life. Also playing a large and important role in Bosch's story is Los Angeles itself, one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world. Connelly uses this fact to great effect in all of his Harry Bosch novels, weaving into them a portrait of a city that most people, including some longtime L.A. residents, may not know.
Rick Baker is a retired Compton police department detective sergeant and the author of Vice: One Cop's Story of Patrolling America's Most Dangerous City.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.
Before Michael Connelly was a best-selling mystery novelist, he was a beat reporter covering crime for the Los Angeles Times. His protagonist, Harry Bosch, travels through L.A. as a homicide detective. Mandalit del Barco spent a day with Connelly as he toured the City of Angels the way he and Harry Bosch see it.
Michael Connelly has no need for the GPS device on the SUV he's driving from Venice Beach to downtown; he knows these streets and freeways well. The windshield is his lens on L.A.
"To use a cop term, it's a suitcase city. It's a transient place. People come from all over to be here," he says on the 10 Freeway. "And there's an element of agitation. Am I safe? The car is the safety zone. And you can extend that and say that's part of the difficulties in the city is that we're able to remain compartmentalized and separate, because we're all driving around by ourselves in our cars."
For a decade, Connelly prowled the city as a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times.
"My editor told me, 'You're now in a city that's a sunny place for shady people,'" he says, during a stop at Bird's, an eatery on Franklin Avenue. "He said, 'In between the sun and the shade are good stories.'"
During his day job, Connelly was always taking mental notes about the locations and characters he would fictionalize. Eighteen novels later, he's still exploring the world of the Los Angeles Police Department.
In Hollywood, Connelly joins up with a buddy, patrol Sgt. McDonald, who appears every once in a while in his novels. They drive through the famous Sunset Boulevards in a black-and-white squad car. Near the on-ramp to the 101 Freeway, they're flagged down by a frantic man who has just been mugged.
The victim is a 54-year-old immigrant from Budapest. His face is bloodied, and his eyeglasses are broken.
Connelly watches the cops who arrive on the scene to take the victim's report, and the paramedics who bandage his head.
"The take on this crime is $30," he notes. "Just think about the impact on his life, physically, mentally and financially. And in the overall record of this city, it's a nothing crime. But see how significant it is."
It's not as grim as the crimes Connelly's main character investigates. That would be Hieronymus Bosch ... Harry Bosch.
"He's an outsider with an insider's job. He's got a badge," Connelly says. He based Bosch on Raymond Chandler's character Phillip Marlowe, a 1940s private eye. Bosch is a relentless, modern-day homicide detective with the LAPD.
"You might not like his tactics, or all his tactics, you might not like his personality. There may not be a lot you don't like about him," Connelly says, "but you would respect how he works to the point that if it were your loved one on the slab down at the morgue, the first name that would come to mind in terms of an investigator would be Harry Bosch."
Bosch works in the homicide division at the Hollywood station, which has its own sidewalk stars and movie posters in the lobby. Today, Connelly pays a visit and meets the new captain, Thomas Brascia.
"I've read every book you've ever written, every Harry Bosch book," Brascia tells Connelly. "I'm an ex-homicide cop. I'm living vicariously through Harry Bosch."
There have been so many movies and TV shows and books about the L.A. cops, but Brascia says Connelly's descriptions of the bustling precinct, the seedy neighborhoods, the at times thrilling and tedious police work are dead-on.
"You can tell Michael's been here," Brascia says. "He's done his homework."
Connelly gets the same reaction at the Criminal Courts building downtown. A few floors up from where music producer Phil Spector is being tried, the author sits in on a random case. The accused wears an orange prison jumpsuit, writing notes to her lawyer.
"The defendant in this case is actually a defense attorney," Connelly whispers during the proceeding. "It's just happenstance that I'm writing about a defense attorney and here's one being sent to prison."
Connelly's now working on a new novel, starring Bosch and criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller, who operates out of the back seat of his Lincoln Town Car. When Judge Judy Champagne calls for a recess, she asks Connelly to step into her chambers, and greets him warmly with a hug.
Connelly hands her a manuscript of his current caper.
"Once again, I want Judge Champagne to make a cameo in the book I'm writing," he says.
Connelly asks her to be brutally honest about whether he got all the legal work right. Champagne seems flattered that he wants to base another character on her, and she's impressed by Connelly's relentless fact checking.
"You know, Michael really, really works hard to get it accurate, which all the cops and the judges and the lawyers who are great fans love about it," she says. "And the characters are flawed. They're just the way we are. I mean, Harry's been my favorite, but he's flawed! Sometimes I think, 'Harry, don't do that! This is going to get you in trouble.'"
Champagne's late husband, Roy, was Connelly's friend. And the writer says he based much of Bosch's character on him. The judge was once a prosecutor, and her husband was a cop who brought her cases.
Connelly used that in a book with the line, "I hook 'em and you cook 'em."
After court, Connelly takes a walk through the bustling downtown to some of the places he and Bosch really love. The grandiose old Million Dollar movie palace, where Connelly set his fictional secret FBI unit. On his way to the Angel's Flight trolley, he visits the Grand Central Market, where Bosch and the police staged a spectacular shootout with a bad guy hiding behind the meat counter.
Then he heads to the ornate Bradbury Building, a favorite Hollywood location with wrought iron railings and a hand-crank elevator.
"This, by far, most beautiful building in L.A.," Connelly says. "With Harry, there's a poignant contradiction. In the books, he comes here to contemplate what's beautiful about the city. Unfortunately, his enemies are here. The Internal Affairs department of the LAPD."
The maverick Harry Bosch and his creator, Connelly, often come up with clues and solve their cases while on the road, listening to jazz. Both are contemplative about the city they love.
"It's the randomness of this place," Connelly muses. "Anything could happen — good and bad — so quickly. People become overnight famous in this place for good things, and often for horrible things."
Listening to Bosch's theme song, Frank Morgan's "Lullaby," on the CD, Connelly winds down his day with a stop at the Hollywood Lake, the scene of several crimes in his novels, The Overlook and The Black Echo.
Then he heads to Mulholland Drive, and up to where Bosch's fictional house was red-tagged after an earthquake. From this vantage point high in the Hollywood Hills, Connelly looks out over the canyon to the endless ribbon of red lights on the freeway.
"It's a city that's beautiful and damaged, that has so much that appears going for it, but falls short," he says. "Just like a person — a flawed character."
This is Michael Connelly's Los Angeles: Beautiful and damaged, with moments of hidden grace.