Steven Powell has an M.A. in Victorian Literature from the University of Liverpool, and is currently studying for a Literature Ph.D. on the American Crime author James Ellroy.
The Secrets of Harry Bright
Joseph Wambaugh was a Los Angeles policeman and detective for fifteen years before turning full-time to writing about crime (real and fictional) in the early 70’s. Now he’s regarded as one of the finest crime writers of the age. There are few contemporary American writers in the mystery genre who do not revere his mixture of cold realism, mordant black humour and sharp dialogue. To be fair, these are characteristics that he abandoned in his later novels. The characters became more caricatured, the humour more smutty, and the plotting so thin it is as though Wambaugh was so desperate not to repeat himself that he forgot to make the story interesting.
So for many, his stellar reputation rests on his brutal but funny depiction of L.A. Cops, The Choirboys (1975), his non-fiction classic, The Onion Field (1973), and a few others, including this 80’s gem, The Secrets of Harry Bright. The plot seems Chandleresque at first: struggling alcoholic homicide detective Sidney Blackpool is hired by a Palm Springs millionaire to investigate the murder of his son in nearby Mineral Springs. The case is over a year old and considered by the local P.D. to be unsolvable. But, as his employer is offering an all- expense- paid holiday with just a little bit of police work in between, Blackpool cannot resist. Yet, he soon finds himself lulled away from the luxury golf clubs to being obsessed about the case. He has lost a son himself, and regards it as a personal crusade to find the killer amidst the strangeness of Palm Springs life—a bizarre triangle of desert cops, biker gangs, and bored housewives. All of which Wambaugh gives quirky character introductions to in the opening pages before the first chapter: Blackpool’s reads:
SGT. SIDNEY “BLACK SID” BLACKPOOL – an L.A.P.D. homicide detective with a staggering Johnny Walker habit. Involved in a dead-end murder investigation that strikes closer to home than he can bear.
The title character, Harry Bright, is a once-revered cop, not unlike Blackpool, now in a coma and holding the key to the mystery. However, Wambaugh is interested less in the plot than he is paralleling the two policemen. The novel is rich with details of cop life, from the funny— guys impersonating Magnum P.I. on the beat— to the sad— the high divorce rate, and the almost equally high suicide rate. Wambaugh has been writing about these men for more than thirty years, but what makes Harry Bright’s secrets so fascinating is that as they are unravelled, they become less about crime, until finally not about crime at all. The more Blackpool discovers about Bright, the more it serves to deepen the mystery of himself. Why is being a cop as alien to mainstream American society as being a criminal? Wambaugh’s depiction of this despairing life is both thrilling and moving. The flashbacks of Harry Bright before his coma-induced stroke are pitiable. He cannot sing, but he records songs for his love when they are obviously not wanted. He is the most respected cop in the department, but he patrols an area where crime is almost non-existent. Yet, in a strange way, Blackpool envies him: ‘He stared into Harry Bright’s beautiful blue eyes. Looking for what.’ Blackpool is the hedonistic homicide detective to Harry’s Bright’s shadow of a policeman. But Bright finds a kind of emotional rest in his hospital bed which eludes Blackpool. Ultimately, Sidney Blackpool is serving a life sentence. Harry Bright is set free. Wambaugh has never been better than he is here, and he could do a lot worse than returning to this territory.