Though Joseph Wambaugh (Fugitive Nights, The Golden Orange) has a natural, almost fatherly affection for his characters, even for the meanest, sleaziest ones, and a world-class sense of humor (which leads him at times to slip in some highly improbable one-liners), he has never lost his moralist’s outrage at greed, selfishness, and blundering stupidity. In the cleverly titled Finnegan’s Week (Morrow, $22), his latest novel, Wambaugh clearly wants us to enjoy the mating rituals of three very likable screwball detectives, but he won’t let us forget, not even for a page, that the primal curse of police officers is seeing ”not just the worst of people, but ordinary people at their worst.”
Fin Finnegan of the San Diego police force is undergoing a mid-life crisis; actually, it’s a ”mid-life calamity.” Long convinced that he’s a cop only by training, and that he’s a potential film star, Fin, at 45, is suddenly finding it harder and harder to keep the dream alive. His latest audition, reading for the part of a smooth contract killer, is an instant disaster that turns humiliating when the casting director asks him to fix a few parking tickets. After that, he’s almost ready to forget about the movie business and resign himself to police work, but after 23 years it’s all gotten too boring. Take his latest case. A missing commercial van is not exactly something to get his juices flowing, even if the van happens to contain several drums full of hazardous waste.
Then Fin’s life takes a promising turn when he’s partnered with Nell Salter, a former colleague now working as a ”goop cop”—a detective assigned to the DA’s office to investigate environmental crimes. Forty-three and experiencing a middle-age crisis of her own, Nell is flat-out determined to resist Fin’s Irish charm and snappy patter. She pegs him for just another Peter Pan policeman, a fortysomething little boy in big need of a care giver, someone who’s fun to work and banter with but strictly bad news as a lover. So why, then, does she find herself getting so jealous when perky young Bobbie Ann Doggett, a plainclothes Navy detective, joins the investigation and develops a major crush on Finnegan?
As delightful and witty as the love triangle is here, Wambaugh doesn’t let it overwhelm the crime story, which keeps getting darker and more complicated, turning from a routine search for a stolen vehicle into a felony case involving corporate fraud, toxic poisoning, several grisly murders, and, crazily enough, the theft of 2,000 pairs of Navy deck shoes. A combination police procedural and romantic comedy, Wambaugh’s novel is superbly crafted and paced, deliciously funny, but fundamentally, as always, dead serious. If there were an annual literary award called Most Fun to Read, Finnegan’s Week would be my leading contender. A