The Secrets of Harry Bright

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

When Sidney Blackpool is hired by Victor Watson to investigate the murder of his son, Jack, the police detective has little to go on. The murder case is seventeen months old. The young man was found burned and shot in the head, his car torched, near the resort town of Mineral Springs, Nevada. Watson has brought Blackpool in on the case not only because Blackpool is a respected policeman but also because he has recently lost his own son in a surfing accident. Watson thinks that the detective might better understand his own grief and his need to lay his son to rest.

Blackpool travels to Mineral Springs to begin his search. His best clues are a ukelele, a tape of someone singing “Make Believe,” and a picture of Jack Watson with another young man and a girl. As the investigation continues, Blackpool is led to Sergeant Harry Bright, a policeman with the Mineral Springs force who has recently suffered a stroke and is slowly dying. Bright, the leader learns, has himself lost a son, and Blackpool begins to discover still other similarities between Bright and himself as he looks for Jack Watson’s killer.

Joseph Wambaugh has made a career of writing about policemen, and THE SECRETS OF HARRY BRIGHT follows the pattern established in his earlier books. The crime to be solved is largely secondary in the plot, which is built on the theme of fathers dealing with the deaths of their children; the book emphasizes the angst of the protagonist. Despite his attempts at existential profundity, however, Wambaugh relies heavily on anecdote and coincidence, and he devotes much of his story to incidents of violence and grotesque black humor. Wambaugh’s fans will not be disappointed, but the book offers little beyond the standard cop story, despite the author’s pretensions.