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A badge, cuffs, pen and paper

Novelist and cop Will Beall writes about life on the streets of one of the LAPD's bloodiest beats: South L.A.

September 21, 2007|Andrew Glazer | Associated Press

Will Beall was on the staff of his college paper when he was conned by a suspected murderer into writing a story that suggested his innocence. When the suspect was swiftly convicted, an embarrassed Beall abandoned a planned journalism career and joined the Los Angeles Police Department.

The kid from a white-bread San Francisco suburb figured he would be better suited to right wrongs with a gun on his hip than a pen in his hand. "I hated writing stuff and not having impact," he said.

And what better place to hone street smarts than the nation's most violent ganglands? As it turned out, it also inspired him to write more.

Beall, 35, author of "L.A. Rex," is working on his second novel when he's not investigating gang killings in the city's blood-soaked 77th Division in South Los Angeles or riding a horse through the scrub and chaparral-covered hills of Griffith Park, where he stopped recently for an interview.

The restless cop has furiously scribbled to stay sane -- filling stacks of legal pads with the blood and pathos scraped from his brain after long nights at crime scenes. Beall, who is divorced, joked that his cathartic writing is healthier than heavy drinking or wrecking a marriage -- other ways police officers can crumble under the stress of a dangerous and demoralizing job.

Though "L.A. Rex" -- released recently in paperback -- is decidedly fiction, Beall's editor, Sean McDonald, speculated that it was no coincidence that an early draft inadvertently lapsed at times into first person. And reading the book, it's hard not to imagine Beall's square chin and deep-set eyes, crowned by the folded brim of a baseball cap, on LAPD rookie Ben Halloran, a character in the book.

"L.A. Rex" brings readers in the squad car with Halloran, an apparent softy from the Westside, and his kneecap-cracking training officer, Miguel Marquez. The two roughly police the same South L.A. streets where Beall has worked for nearly a decade.

Beall also has tapped his notes to produce a series of provocative op-ed pieces for the Los Angeles Times -- essays on gangs, race and poverty that erase the thin blue line and redraw it in a shade of gray.

"L.A. Rex," originally released in hardcover by Riverhead Books last year, similarly smudges the line between good and bad. Underpinning a bloody and frenetic story populated by gangsta rappers, the Mexican Mafia and dirty cops is a commentary on a broken, hopeless and racist society. The title "L.A. Rex" is a play on the Sophocles tragedy "Oedipus the King" and highlights the bloody conflict between characters battling to become king of Los Angeles.

"Without racism and segregation, there wouldn't be any of this," Beall said, underscoring a thematic thread that runs through much of his published work.

Beall has signed on to write a sequel, "The Lion Hunters," which will include a story loosely based on Los Angeles' Rampart Division scandal, in which a group of anti-gang officers framed dozens of innocent people. He also is penning a screenplay of "L.A. Rex" for Scott Rudin, producer of such films as "The Queen," "The Hours" and the forthcoming adaptation of the literary novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay."

Offbeat stories about life on the force are typically reserved for fellow officers exposed to the same depravity and absurdity, said retired LAPD Lt. Raymond Foster, who runs the website www.police-writers.com.

"You build up this stock of experiences and you can't tell anyone on the outside," he said.

But some, like Beall and the 730 police authors cataloged on Foster's site, eventually feel compelled to share them with a wider audience.

Beall said he has received universally positive reviews from fellow officers who have read the book.

Other police writers of fiction and nonfiction have found it difficult to straddle both worlds. The most famous is Joseph Wambaugh, an LAPD sergeant who said he was forced to leave the department after his 1974 nonfiction book about the kidnapping of two police officers, "The Onion Field," hit it big. Criminals, victims and fellow officers had begun to treat Wambaugh not as a cop but as a famous writer.

Still, Beall, with Hollywood attention and publishing money, intends to keep his day job.

"The problem for me is that I've seen the big picture down there -- the Third World homicide rate in the fifth largest economy in the world," he said. "And I can't unsee it, whether I go Hollywood or not. I'd rather be out there and take my shot at doing something about it."

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