"Cops & Crooks in California" Panel at L.A. Festival of Books with Crais, Winslow, Parker & Wambaugh

Remember in the ’70s when you bought K-Tel compilation albums because you didn’t want to buy a bunch of albums by different bands where most cuts were just filler? This past Saturday, at the annual L.A. Festival of Books, the “Cops & Crooks in California” panel was like a K-Tel collection, with Don Winslow (The Dawn Patrol), T. Jefferson Parker (The Renegades), Joseph Wambaugh (Hollywood Crows) and Robert Crais (The Watchman) as moderator. Everyone was a hit and you got them all in one place.

Apparently this panel sold out quickly so for those of you who couldn’t get in or don’t live in the area, I took notes and thought I’d post the highlights. There’s no way I can capture all the hilarity but there’s still plenty of juicy info to be had. Many thanks to Debbie DeNice, who helped me recall quotes in parts where my memory was foggy and my scribbles illegible. I’ll publish this in two parts so be sure and come back for all the good stuff.


After introducing the panelists, Crais’s first question was whether there was “something about Southern California that’s particularly identifying” to the other writers. He addressed Parker first.

“I was born here. I don’t have to go to a new place and ask questions and learn anything because it’s right in front of me,” Parker said. “You know, it’d be very hard to go set up a story in Boston and have the same sort of casualness to the story. I’d have to work really hard.” He equated being a native Californian to Nicholson having floor seats at Lakers games.

“I came out on a case [as a P.I.], went down the PCH, saw Laguna Beach, called my wife and said, ‘We’re moving out here,'” Winslow said.

Wambaugh said he came out here when he was 14. “Would it have been the same if I’d written East Pittsburgh noir?”

“I’d be terrified to go somewhere else and set a novel,” Parker added. “I lived in Orange County for 45 years. My big move was from Orange County to Fallbrook. It was 34 miles but I felt like Magellan.”

Crais next asked the writers how they felt about writing standalones vs. a series.

wambaugh_hollywoodcrowsWambaugh said, “I wrote a sequel to Hollywood Station because I thought maybe it’d be easier since I had some of the characters…But I found some of the characters didn’t want to come back…They didn’t help me plot. Plotting’s the hardest thing.” He added that on his tombstone, it’ll probably say “At Last, a Plot.”

“I didn’t know better,” Winslow said. “I thought all P.I. novels had to be series [he wrote the Neal Carey series].” He stopped writing about Carey when the detective became a “whiny, petulant, little bastard” and the author got tired of him. Winslow told a funny anecdote about a fan asking at a signing if he was anything like Carey and he denied it while his wife nodded vigorously. He then mentioned that the Dawn Patrol gang will be back in his next novel, The Gentleman’s Hour, which made me squeal internally. Hour will be released in the U.K. in June but won’t be out in the U.S. until next year.

Parker said he didn’t look at it as writing a series, more like “writing one big book that’s 2,000 pages.” He mentioned that Charlie Hood from L.A. Outlaws and The Renegades will be back for his third adventure next year called Iron River.

Crais next asked the other writers to share their Hollywood experiences. “Is screenwriting work as important as your prose work?”

“Screenwriting—adapting, I should say, a novel—is the only writing that’s actually fun. It’s like a crossword puzzle,” Wambaugh said.

fallen“I have a guy turning The Fallen into a series…Maybe I can learn something new. Can’t wait,” Parker said. He then added, “Don’t hold your breath, though.”

Winslow had considerably less enthusiasm for Hollywood. He told a story about having a meeting at a studio “that shall remain nameless.” But then he said when he arrived, the guard told him to “go up Mickey Street then left on Dopey Lane.”

“So this was at Paramount?” Crais joked.

Winslow continued, “I told the guard, ‘I took a left on Dopey Lane back in ’89 and didn’t make it back onto Mickey Street until ’92!’ ” The guard said, “Don’t repeat that upstairs.” When Winslow finally got in to see the movie exec, who had several books on his desk, Winslow asked if he’d read them all. The exec answered, “I don’t read. I have people who read.”

monkeysraincoatCrais then told his own story about the “studio that shall remain nameless.” He said when The Monkey’s Raincoat first came out, he received a call from Michael Eisner’s office saying the then-CEO of Disney liked his work and wanted Crais to write a movie based on an original idea Eisner had. When Crais arrived for the meeting, he was met by an exec who said Eisner couldn’t make it. The man then asked Crais if he’d heard of Beverly Hills Cop. When Crais said yes, the exec said that Eisner felt “Beverly Hills as a location hasn’t been exhausted yet at the box office.” Crais said, “Great. What’s the idea?” The exec looked confused and said, “That’s it.”

Crais’s next question was why the men chose to write crime fiction. He said he does it because “I love this stuff” and he’d be reading it if he weren’t writing it.

“I guess if I knew anything about ballet, I’d write about ballet. I was a cop,” Wambaugh said, shrugging.”I went to CalTech to do some research and did end up writing a crime that took place at CalTech. The answer is: What else can I do?”

“Who do you like?” Crais asked.

“I like Tom Wolfe…that’s a guy you can learn something from. For those of you who are novelists or journalists, whatever—he can really put it together. I highly recommend him,” Wambaugh said.

Next, Winslow shared why he writes crime novels. “Same answer—you write what you know and frankly, I grew up around criminals…I always loved the genre, I love reading it. I think as a writer it gives you everything. I’m really greedy as a writer, I want it all. With the crime novel, you can take everyday life if you want drama, then you can also do murder and mayhem and political issues, the nexus of government…so for me, it just gives me that whole world. Any of that piece you want, you can do it in a crime novel.”

Come back tomorrow for the conclusion, when the panelists discuss scary tour experiences, their plotting techniques and how they feel about the Kindle.



  • Reply
    Elizabeth J Duncan
    April 27, 2009 at 8:24 am

    I found this discussion hugely interesting as I will be participating in a panel discussion at Malice Domestic on the theme Mysteries Set Abroad. As a Canadian, I chose to set my books in North Wales, and that requires research! I had been told that Canadian settings don’t interest American or UK readers, although the success of Louise Penny (Quebec) and Giles Blunt (North Bay, ON) would seem to prove that theory wrong.

    • Reply
      April 27, 2009 at 10:07 am

      Hi Ms. Duncan,

      That theory about Canadian settings not being appealing to American readers is interesting. I find that if the story is really good, it doesn’t matter where it’s set. I do like reading SoCal noir because I’m familiar with the territory but I also enjoy stories set in unfamiliar places because I get to learn something new.

      • Reply
        Elizabeth Duncan
        April 28, 2009 at 6:48 am

        I would like to get into SoCal noir! Can you recommend a good starting point? Elmore Leonard, maybe? If it’s part of a series, I like to read in order.

        • Reply
          April 28, 2009 at 8:14 am

          Oh, wow, there are so many choices, Ms. Duncan. First titles that pop into mind are James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. I was in college when I picked these up and it was a mistake because I had a major exam the next day. Instead of studying, I got stuck in these books; I just couldn’t pry them from my hands. I ended up staying up all night, finished them both (they’re slim volumes) and showed up to class bleary-eyed. Don’t remember how I did on that exam but the impact of those books have been seared into my brain.

          As for contemporary SoCal writers, you can’t go wrong with any/all of the authors on this panel. I’d add Michael Connelly and Denise Hamilton. Charlie Huston’s novels are also outrageously good, though he’s a NY transplant so only his latest novel takes place in SoCal. I love Elmore Leonard but his novels aren’t all set here, either.

          Anyone else have suggestions for Ms. Duncan? Please chime in!

  • Reply
    Naomi Johnson
    April 27, 2009 at 10:37 am

    I don’t care where the story is set as long as the author can make me believe it; and if, as Crais does, the author can make the setting another character — outstanding.

    I just wish I could have been present for this panel. Talk about star power!

    • Reply
      April 27, 2009 at 10:48 am

      Hi Naomi,

      If this were a rock concert, it would’ve been like having Springsteen, U2, the Stones and the Police on one stage. Ridiculous!

  • Reply
    April 27, 2009 at 11:49 am

    You’ve summarized this beautifully, PCN. We, Jen and I were two rows behind you. This was even better than last year’s panel with Crais and Parker. Looking forward to your next segment on this.

  • Reply
    Lizabeth Ann
    April 27, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    Copious Thank Yous, PCN! I was present for this way more than AMAZING panel; this is like re-living a wonderful party with the best guests e-v-e-r! Looking forward to tomorrow.

  • Reply
    April 27, 2009 at 5:29 pm

    Fascinating, PCN ~ thank you! I can imagine you trying not to wriggle in your seat with excitement. It’s so great to hear the stories of different writers – their inspiration and what works for them. And funny to boot – who could ask for more!

    • Reply
      April 27, 2009 at 5:48 pm


      I would’ve jumped right up there on the table in front of those guys and done a happy dance but I have a feeling security would’ve been alerted.

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