Americans are accustomed to cop shows where detectives engage in gunplay about as often as the Marines in Afghanistan. In fact, when CSI -- the hottest TV franchise -- has lab techs carrying guns, interrogating suspects and getting involved in shootouts, The Shield starts to look like a documentary.
In the 1990s, cop-turned-great-novelist Joseph Wambaugh told TV Guide that Homicide: Life on the Street was TV's best police show to date because, along with its artistic brilliance, it was the first series to show that the stress of the job was more dangerous to the good guys than the bad guys were.
Far more common than the police officer who has killed in the line of duty is the retired cop who can say he never drew his gun with the intent to fire it.
Undercover work, however, is one line of law enforcement in which officers routinely face violence even more often than a character on CSI.
In his memoir, The Last Undercover, veteran FBI undercover agent Bob Hamer recounts an incident in which he shoots his way out of an ambush, taking out two killers with three shots. Though he escaped without a scratch, he was seconds away from death.
In the case that takes up most of his book, however, the subjects of Hamer's investigation had more reason to fear physical harm would be initiated by him than the other way around.
Hamer spent five years investigating the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), and one of the ways he kept his sanity during endless creepy meetings was by fantasizing about such things as throwing the speaker out the nearest window.
Meanwhile, undercover ATF agent Jay Dobyns -- who tells of his infiltration of the inner circle of the Hells Angels in No Angel -- had the exact opposite problem of Hamer. As the first law enforcement agent to penetrate the outlaw biker gang, he would have had to fight for his life if his identity were discovered.
But unlike Hamer, who headed for home as often as possible to find shelter from the perversion of his targets, Dobyns found himself relishing the image his assignment required him to adopt, and he spent more time in character than necessary. For this macho, former All-PAC 10 football player, the role of motorcycle gang member allowed him all the freedom of being an outlaw without any of its moral problems or fear of prosecution.
Hamer, a devout Christian who relates how his faith kept him on track, tells his story in PG language as often as possible. This ultimately makes the story bearable to the reader who might otherwise find the subject's "ick factor" too high to stick with it.
Dobyns, on the other hand, tells his story in every gritty detail. Of course, it helps that he is dealing with a subculture as fascinating as that in The Sopranos. At times, for instance, the loyalty shown to Dobyn's alter ego by the gangsters he is investigating is almost touching.
We are never tempted to engage in any such empathy about the NAMBLA members in Hamer's book.
Despite the polar opposite nature of Hamer and Dobyns' experiences, No Angel and The Last Undercover have a common thread of sacrificial heroism, along with an undercurrent of constant danger and the sometimes unbearable stress of the job Wambaugh was talking about.
They also are two of the best true crime books in recent years.
No Angel is a classic crime memoir in a league with Wiseguy (the Nicholas Pileggi book that was the basis for the film Goodfellas, not the TV show) and Donnie Brasco. And like those two true-crime classics, No Angel has the elements for an terrific film.
Dobyns presents an increasingly conflicted hero operating in an atmosphere of constant danger, a horde of fascinating macho characters and a host of suspenseful stories of agents matching wits with canny, paranoid bad guys and improvising on the fly to keep their cover intact.
At the same time, we worry about Jay Dobyns' soul and the well-being of his family (especially a breathtakingly callous incident when his Dobyns's daughter breaks the rules to call him while he's on assignment) as his biker persona starts to have more attraction for him than his real life.
First-time author Nils Johnson-Shelton does a great job of juggling complicated story lines and dozens of characters. Most importantly, he stays so deep in the background that the reader feels as though he is just sitting and listening to this agent tell his story.
While Dobyns' book would make the better movie, Hamer's should provoke a congressional inquiry into revoking the Americans for Civil Liberties Union's charitable status.
Hamer rips the cover off the ACLU-NAMBLA claim that the pedophilia-friendly group is protected by the First Amendment because it merely advocates to change age-of-consent laws and argues the politics of sex laws based on age.
"The express purpose of the organization is to abolish age-of-consent laws and legalize consensual sex between men and boys. In reality, this group, hiding behind the First Amendment, uses the secret meetings as a networking opportunity to reinforce among themselves their criminal passions. I know because I was invited into the inner sanctum. I attended meetings, participated in their pen pal program, wrote for their magazine, and was asked twice to serve on the steering committee, their governing body.
Not once during my three-year membership was there any effort to lobby any political figure at any level of government to seek to abolish or even to modify the age-of-consent laws. There was no talk of hiring a paid lobbyist in Washington; there was no organized letter writing campaign; there was no endorsement of candidates. For all intents and purposes these men meet to network with other child molesters on where and how to find and seduce boys. We proved that when an FBI-orchestrated sting operation netted eight members of what one defendant called the group's 'inner circle.'"
Hamer states flatly, "NAMBLA is an underground network of men who are sexually attracted to boys and seek to justify their attraction." Period.
Hamer, who also writes an excellent column for the Big Hollywood website, also went undercover to nail Russian illegal arms traders, Chinese mobsters and North Korean counterfeiters in his 26-year career as an FBI agent. He felt the most urgency to write The Last Undercover so he could warn parents about the threat of NAMBLA and similar predators.
Hamer includes some tidbits about his other investigations, including the afore-mentioned shootout, because his editors -- correctly, it turns out -- told him a book solely about NAMBLA would be a bit much for readers to bear. Let's hope some more books are forthcoming from this excellent writer and American hero.