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`FUGITIVE NIGHTS' RATES NEAR TOP ON POLICE NOVEL READERS' LAUGH METERS

Since 1970, when his first novel, "The New Centurions," was embraced by both critics and readers, Joseph Wambaugh, a former Los Angeles Police Department detective, has published 13 books - four of them non-fiction - that say, in essence, that a police officer's lot is not a happy one. Regardless of that somber theme, leading inevitably to a cast of characters plagued by depression, alcoholism, terminal cynicism and suicide, his novels have become increasingly more hilarious.

His newest, "Fugitive Nights," which begins with a historic meeting of President Bush, former Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu and the mayor of Palm Springs, Sonny Bono, is one of the funniest mysteries in years.You could see it coming from as far back as 1975's "The Choirboys," when the author established a successful formula in which alienated, besotted police officers stagger through their thankless sleuthing with a sureness of purpose, all the while mouthing street-wise metaphors as unique as any Raymond Chandler imagined, and just as clever. It is to Wambaugh's credit that as similar as are the structures of his recent fictions, each is, surprisingly, unique. Rather than repeating himself, he seems to be refining his technique and redefining his purpose.

His last novel, "The Big Orange," arriving on the heels of a more-or-less straightforward work of crime journalism, "The Blooding," was a wildly woozy piece following a bibulous ex-police officer named Winnie Farlow on a jaunty, jaundiced journey through the moneyed and privileged haunts of Newport Beach. "Fugitive" offers an equally besotted hero, Lynn Cutter, whose home base is Mayor Bono's desert enclave.

Cutter is a smart-mouthed, spongy hulk who is counting the days until his disability pension allows him to spend days as well as nights in the Furnace Room, a neighborhood haunt that even he finds repulsive. Fate intervenes in the form of a beautiful but hardboiled ex-cop named Brenda Burrows, who has just opened a local private-detective agency and is in need of a police contact. She persuades Cutter, against his better judgment, to help her with a case.

The case involves, among other surprising aspects, an errant husband who is making secret deposits to a sperm bank. And if that isn't antic enough, there's a pathetically ambitious and hard-headed diminutive young police misfit named Nelson Hareem (a.k.a. "Dirty Hareem" or "Half-Nelson") on the trail of a mysterious and probably murderous illegal alien. Hareem drags Cutter into that case, too.

Like Elmore Leonard, Wambaugh is much more interested in people than in the clean, neat ending and other similar conventions of the crime novel. And, considering the gags and sarcastic quips about politics, personalities and places, he's obviously happier being a pundit than a plotter.

The man who pioneered the cop novel is not only finding life a great deal more humorous these days, he's using his considerable skill to let us in on the joke, too.