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To Live and Write in L.A. : Former Secret Service Agent Books Crooks--and Police--in Crime Novels

May 30, 1991|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Gerald Petievich's world, the cops are generally good and the crooks are generally bad. But in the end, they are all tainted by the same scum.

It is a lesson he learned from his father, a retired narcotics officer; from his brother, a gang specialist in the Los Angeles Police Department, and from his own 15 years wearing a badge in the U.S. Secret Service.

Today, the 46-year-old author spins that cynicism into topical, fast-paced crime novels that have earned him a reputation for painting realistic--if sometimes unflattering--portraits of police work.

In the process, he has been able to quit what he considered a dead-end job, futilely chasing counterfeiters. He now sells his manuscripts at publishing auctions in New York for what his publicist says are "high six-figure" advances.

"I've met thousands and thousands of cops of all varieties, and I am sympathetic, generally, to what they do," Petievich said in a recent interview.

"But when those people are given an impossible task, with limited means and some authority," he added, "sometimes things can get really brutal and animalistic."

His best-known work, "To Live and Die in L.A.," features a kamikaze Treasury officer who is not above breaking the law to ensure that an ace counterfeiter gets his comeuppance.

In his latest novel, "Earth Angels," a hot-shot commando unit specially formed to neutralize East Los Angeles gangs ends up operating like a lawless gang itself.

And in "Paramour," due out in October, a male Secret Service agent assigned to follow a suspected female spy in the White House violates his oath by falling in love with her.

"Policemen are totally misunderstood," said Petievich, the author of eight novels since 1980. "There's nothing they can do to solve any of these problems. A cop is just 'some guy' . . . some guy with a high school diploma."

John Petievich, a detective in the LAPD's fugitive division, said that his brother's books are often passed around during tedious stakeouts and that the hardcover version of "Earth Angels" was a bestseller at the Police Academy gift shop.

"The policemen really liked it," the 20-year veteran said. "A lot these characters are realistic. I think we've all known somebody like one of these guys."

Petievich the author wastes little time analyzing the psychology of his characters, however.

Even though he spent months cruising East Los Angeles with his brother and talking with Latino gangs before writing "Earth Angels," Petievich offers little understanding of why gang members are the way they are. He offers no solutions for ending the bloody cycles of violence.

"I want people to be horrified at this thing that is happening in our society," he explained. "But I don't have the answers to it. I'm only a novelist."

The book is also peppered with Spanish slang, but in at least a half a dozen instances the phrases are misspelled or ungrammatical. Although Petievich attributed some of the problems to typographical errors, he conceded that he relied on gang members for guidance on the fine points of the language.

"I probably should have asked somebody who was a Spanish linguist," he said.

A balding, jolly-faced man with a silvery mustache, Petievich, who lives in San Marino, looks more like a weekend sail boater than a burned-out ex-cop. He grew up in a middle-class Alhambra home that he remembers as being straight out of "Ozzie and Harriet."

The only difference was that his father spent 25 years as an LAPD narcotics officer. He rarely discussed his job at home, but when fellow officers came over to swap stories in the kitchen, young Gerry would occasionally eavesdrop through the door.

Never mind the Nelsons. "I thought, God, this is just like 'Dragnet,' " Petievich said, recalling one tale about how his father's colleagues fatally shot a suspect in a liquor store robbery.

After graduating from Cal State Los Angeles with a bachelor's degree in European history and collection of trophies from the gymnastics team, Petievich enlisted in the Army. He was sent to a German-language school and spent two years in Europe working as a counterintelligence agent.

In 1970, lured by the prospect of steady work in a well-respected area of law enforcement, Petievich walked into the Los Angeles Secret Service office and was hired on the spot. He busted forgers, protected foreign dignitaries and spent several years in Paris with Interpol, the international police network.

"After a couple of years, I was burned out, though," said Petievich. "I came to a point where I saw I was always going to be working for some drone bureaucrat in a pecking order."

Writing had always come easy for him. At Alhambra High School, he penned two pieces for the school literary magazine: one about a boxer taken advantage of by greedy promoters, the other about a homeless man with no opportunity in life. His wife, Pamela, with whom he has a 13-year-old daughter, suggested that he take a night class in fiction writing.

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