Kemper's Reviews > The Choirboys

The Choirboys by Joseph Wambaugh
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Feb 06, 11

bookshelves: crime-mystery, 5-0, humor, 2011-r, favorites

Despite being a big crime/mystery fan, I’m not really into the scores of police procedural novels or dozens of TV shows that litter the networks these days. For me, all of these stories try to portray the various kinds of cops as politically correct robots who go about their jobs with a kind of determined detachment except for maybe the occasional bit of angst to add a little faux drama to the mix.

To get me interested in a cop story these days, it has to be some kind of ultra-realistic look at the bureaucratic nightmare of real police work like The Wire. Or be an epic tragedy with corrupt characters like The Shield. Or have some kind of offbeat protagonist that interests me like Raylan Givens on Justified. But show me those soulless pretty people tracking serial killers by getting their DNA tests done in three minutes on a CSI show and my eyes glaze over.

Joseph Wambaugh worked the LAPD in the 1960s-70s, and during an era when cops were almost invariably portrayed as square jawed heroes, he wrote novels that dared to show the police as very flawed, damaged and relatable human beings. For my money, probably his best work along those lines was The Choirboys.

The book begins with the LAPD brass in an uproar about a potential scandal involving a killing during a ‘choir practice’. As they try to figure out a way to spin the story and minimize the damage, we get the impression that a bunch of police officers went on a drunken rampage and somebody died as a result.

Wambaugh then shifts through the events leading up to the death by following 5 pairs of uniformed police officers working out of LA’s Wilshire division. There’s the tough veteran ‘Spermwhale’ Whalen about to get his 20 years in. Baxter Slate is a former classics student haunted by a disastrous tour working Juveniles. ‘Roscoe’ Rules is a racist moron with knack for taking the most routine calls and turning them into riots. Sam Niles has been stuck with his annoying partner and supposed best friend, Harold, since they were in Vietnam together. Spencer is a clothes horse who works his ‘police discount’ to buy high end retail stuff at wholesale prices. The rest of the so-called choir boys are also a collection of misfits with disastrous personal lives.

The cops engage in what they call choir practice where they go to MacArthur Park with cases of booze they’ve mooched from liquor store owners, and then they proceed to get totally pants-shitting howl-at-the-moon drunk while gang banging a pair of police groupies.

Doesn’t make them sound very appealing, does it?

What Wambaugh shows is that these choir practices are usually the direct result of the horrible things the cops routinely have to deal with while constantly being harassed by their bosses for violations of petty rules while ignoring the emotional well-being of the officers. The worst part of it is that while the choirboys are routinely abused while dealing with parade of ignorant lowlifes and see the worst that people can do to themselves and each other, it’s all so achingly common place that they can’t muster more than slight contempt and dark humor. Until they see something so horrible that they call for a choir practice to block it out with booze and meaningless sex.

The intellectual Baxter puts Wambaugh’s theme into words while giving a drunken lecture during a choir practice:

I mean that the weakness of the human race is stupefying and that it’s not the capacity for evil which astounds young policemen like you and me. Rather it’s the mind boggling worthlessness of human beings. There’s not enough dignity in mankind for evil and that’s the most terrifying thing a policeman learns.”

What keeps this book from being just a depressing look into the abyss is that it’s black cop humor is constant. There’s almost nothing that happens that can’t be made into sick humor and there’s no asshole boss so irritating that he can’t be the victim of an ingenious prank for revenge. It’s crude and socially unacceptable, but it’s really damn funny, too.

Rereading this in 2011, I could only imagine the howls of outrage if something like the choirboys became a media scandal. A gang of drunken cops abusing their badges to score free liquor for binge drinking and pulling trains on a couple of cocktail waitresses in a public park would get a whole lot of people fired these days, but the great thing about Wambaugh is the way he convinces you that that the choirboys were usually good cops deserving of respect and sympathy.
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Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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message 1: by Milo (new)

Milo I feel the same way about most of the crime shows on TV. I'm not a huge fan of novels involving cops but you won me over with the binge drinking an waitress's bit...definitely peaked my interest. How are the first books of the choirboy series?


message 2: by Kemper (last edited Feb 07, 2011 06:29AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kemper Milo wrote: "I feel the same way about most of the crime shows on TV. I'm not a huge fan of novels involving cops but you won me over with the binge drinking an waitress's bit...definitely peaked my interest. H..."

It's not a series, it's a stand-alone novel. Wambaugh has more recently done three novels about modern Hollywood cops (Hollywood Station, Hollywood Crows and Hollywood Moon), but Choirboys is the only book with these characters.


message 3: by Mohammed (new)

Mohammed Great review Kemper. I dislike cop shows on tv too if they are not special,realistic like The Wire,Sheild or fun like Justified.

Does he have black humor in his other books too ?


Kemper Mohammed wrote: "Great review Kemper. I dislike cop shows on tv too if they are not special,realistic like The Wire,Sheild or fun like Justified.

Does he have black humor in his other books too ?"


Yep. It's one of the things he's best at.


message 5: by Mohammed (last edited Mar 25, 2011 12:59PM) (new)

Mohammed I read every good black humour writer i can find as a general rule after a certain fav Irish writer.

Even certain type books i dont usually like. Nothing like finding serious,dark stuff funny.

Thankfully i can order this from other city library.


Kemper Choirboys has a lot of his humor and so does his new series about cops in Hollywood. Hollywood Station, Hollywood Crows and Hollywood Moon.


message 7: by Mohammed (new)

Mohammed Kemper wrote: "Choirboys has a lot of his humor and so does his new series about cops in Hollywood. Hollywood Station, Hollywood Crows and Hollywood Moon."

I can get Hollywood books from local library. But my rule when i try new authors for me is to get their best or one of their best works. This novel before the first Hollywood book then.


message 8: by Stephen (new)

Stephen This looks like one I need to pick up. Great review, good sir.


Kemper Stephen wrote: "This looks like one I need to pick up. Great review, good sir."

Thanks!


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