You hear all the time about clowns yearning to play Hamlet — usually with dismal results. (Remember Touch, Elmore Leonard’s earnest spiritual fantasy?) But sometimes it’s Hamlet who wants to forget the serious stuff and clown around. And so it is with Joseph Wambaugh, the founding father of the bummed-out, dire-straits cop novel, who seems just to wanna have fun in Fugitive Nights, a high-energy, low-intensity thriller set in chichi Palm Springs.

True, some of Wambaugh’s earlier books — The Choirboys, especially — were marbled with raucous humor and rude satire. In vintage Wambaugh, however, the low comedy always works as an ironic counterpoint to the devastating grimness of urban police work, the rock-bottom desperation of lonely, alcoholic policemen. There’s no such tragic undertow in Fugitive Nights. This time the funny stuff is — or tries to be — an end in itself.

For a while Wambaugh seems adept here at bringing together the right ingredients for airy suspense-comedy a la Donald Westlake or (lighter) Elmore Leonard. His hero is yet another alcoholic cop, but a cheerful, wisecracking, functional one: twice divorced, 45ish Lynn Cutter, who’s waiting for his disability pension to be approved by the Palm Springs P. D. The plot, too, starts out sweet and breezy — as Lynn is recruited for part-time gumshoe work by confident ex-cop Breda Burrows, a newcomer to Palm Springs with big private-eye ambitions. Her principal client? Icy, glitzy Rhonda Devon, who wants to know why her 63-year-old millionaire husband, Clive, supposedly impotent, has been making secret deposits to a Beverly Hills sperm bank. And this intriguing question is neatly compounded when Lynn, on Clive’s trail, spots him making contact with an enigmatic Mexican fugitive — who might be a drug smuggler or maybe a terrorist.

Soon, however, Wambaugh’s quest for laughs shows signs of considerable strain. Lynn’s nonstop one-liners sink more often than they score. The inevitable sexual tension between macho Lynn and liberated Breda (an attractive divorcée) moves from serviceable repartee to noisy farce when he gets her drunk, with dishonorable intentions, and she overreacts. The sleuthing becomes decidedly cartoonish once Lynn teams up with the accident- prone Nelson ”Dirty” Hareem, an undersize, overeager young cop who’s determined to capture the fugitive and thereby win a transfer to Palm Springs from his bleak desert outpost. There’s a contrived slapstick sequence at a funeral parlor (Lynn gets pushed into an occupied casket), a climactic golf-cart chase at the Bob Hope Classic, and, throughout, far too many exclamation points trying to substitute for genuine excitement and hilarity.

At the same time, sporadic reminders of Wambaugh in his prime only serve to point up the thinness of the main action. The fugitive himself, whose crime and its motivation provide a satisfying twist, has the makings — barely explored — of a worthy Wambaugh hero. So does the minor character of Jack Graves, an ex-narcotics cop haunted by his unintentional shooting of a 12-year-old. Even the sperm-bank mystery, which is shoved to the sidelines early on, yields surprising pathos.

It’s as if Wambaugh, while intent on concocting bubbly entertainment, couldn’t prevent himself from reaching, every now and then, into those dark corners he knows so well. The result is a wildly uneven book: amateurish in spots, brilliantly suspenseful in others, and always recognizable as the work of a master storyteller — if not a master clown. B

Fugitive Nights
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