Let this rhetorical examination of a woefully overlooked literary master, working with the most critical of materials, begin with a simple statement: The first novel in The Mod Squad series, based on the popular television show, is titled The Greek God Affair (1968) and was written by Mr. Richard Deming.
Mr. Deming, an author worth celebrating for what I assume—as I envision him tapping away at a refurbished Underwood typewriter at his kitchen table—is the firm jaw and steely gaze that accompany a prodigious literary output. Mr. Deming published 78 novels, including the Matt Rudd series and novelizations of the television programs Dragnet, Starsky and Hutch, and Charley’s Angels. He also wrote ten books of nonfiction, including a book about how police labs work and one about baseball pitcher Vida Blue (one of baseball’s great players and great names!).
Mr. Deming’s prose is affectless and pure. It is absent of irony. It has no jaundice. The world he depicts is one of certainty and belonging—perfect for the clarity of purpose and familiality of the three youths who constitute The Mod Squad.
Among my favorite scenes in all of literature is Mr. Deming’s depiction of The Mod Squad—Pete, Linc, and Julie—sitting in a coffee shop late at night putting together the pieces of a puzzling case. A passage like “Pete turned his head to glance upward at Linc; the latter nodded his head in indication that he had heard enough and was ready for action” captures the modesty and strength of Mr. Deming’s spirit and worldview. One can picture Mr. Deming, as he raps on the Underwood, lovingly occupying The Mod Squad’s friendship and comfortable narrative arcs.
Yes, The Greek God Affair occasionally dips into the thoughts of its three heroes, but it is written largely in an objective, author-as-camera point of view. Events unfold at a brisk pace. That is an understandable and effective approach for a novel that largely rests on its action, for a world in which sensations have the functionality of those in fables. Also, it is rather a tricky thing to move among the thoughts of three main characters, especially when they are together in one room.
The novel opens with a chapter recounting how Pete Cochrane, Linc Hayes, and Julie Barnes were recruited as troubled young people—with uncertain direction in life and no one who loved them—to form a team of undercover police officers.
Despite my admiration for Mr. Deming—perhaps you would say the word “admiration” is too tepid a word; I would not argue with you there!—I cannot help but suspect that he may have rushed through the events of this first chapter. Don’t get me wrong; I do not mean this a criticism. Perhaps Mr. Deming was eager to get on with the more animated aspects of the novel. Perhaps he was still getting to know these characters. Perhaps he was uncomfortable lingering on the hard-to-define feelings of these young people at this vertiginous moment. Or perhaps Mr. Deming simply needed to get about the business of writing this book. Fair enough. He had a living to earn.
In the novel, the three youths, barely past their teenage years, sit in a waiting area outside the office of Captain Adam Greer of the Los Angeles Police Department. The three, who have never met, wonder why they have been summoned here. Although all three were in trouble with the law previously—Pete for leading the police on a 120-miles-per-hour car chase, Linc for throwing bricks at cops, and Julie for “a minor reign of terror” with her “motorcycle gang friends”—all had been out of trouble for months.
Suspecting that Mr. Deming had, for one reason or another—no criticism implied!—short-changed us on this important moment, I asked Linc, Julie, and Pete for more detail.
“Yeah,” Linc said, “I noticed the other two in the waiting room, but I didn’t really think about them. Why wouldn’t there be other people in the waiting room? The two of them looked just like I imagine I did—like a drifter, like a lost soul. But at that moment, all I thought about was me—like, what more weight was the world going to put on this kid from Watts?”
Julie mentioned a standing ashtray near her seat. “At a time like that, you don’t want to look at anyone else,” she said. “You don’t want to draw on anyone else’s misery, and you don’t want them drawing on yours. Also, in those days, I was mostly shut down emotionally. I stared at this standing ashtray. Its stanchion was shiny like chrome. I watched the fluorescent light reflect off it. When I would move slightly, the reflection was like a wink. I remember trying to characterize that wink—was it like the wink of a letch or was it a wink like ‘don’t worry, everything will be fine’?”
Pete recalled, “I had quit drinking a few months before, and I remember thinking that I wished I was hungover so I could focus on that rather than on worrying about what that cop had waiting for me in his office.”
In the book, a sergeant escorts the youths one at a time to the Captain’s office. Toward the Captain, each youth expresses outrage and apprehension about being called to police headquarters despite having been on the straight and narrow. In the process, all reveal the antecedents of their rebellion (a necessary piece of exposition handled in Mr. Deming’s usual businesslike way). In the case of Julie, that antecedent was a mother who had abandoned her and only emerged when asking for money. Pete was trying to gain the love of wealthy but inattentive parents. For Linc, the antecedent was not specified by Mr. Deming, but appears to be the general crush of poverty.
Once the outrage runs its course, Captain Greer, gruff and direct, conveys a message to each. The Los Angeles Police Department—and he personally—believes that each youth has straightened out his or her life. He wants each to join the police department as part of an undercover squad to help with youth-related problems. He has confidence in each youth. He wants to change their lives.
Acknowledging that they have “a lot to think about,” he sends each back to the waiting area.
When I asked Pete to describe that moment, when he returned to the waiting room having just heard this offer to change his life, he just said, “Man,” shook his head, and stared at the floor.
Julie said, “I felt this sensation gathering around my temples, and then in my chest, and then in my legs. It was like a throbbing, but it wasn’t painful. At first I thought I wouldn’t be able to stand up. Then I thought that when I stood up, I would feel taller.”
Linc said, “You know how your thoughts are usually a bunch of images and sensations and half-formed memories? Well, at that moment, my thoughts were words in the form of a sentence, in the sound of my voice. ‘Buddy,’ I thought, ‘for the first time in your life, someone loves you.’ I wasn’t sure who that someone was. Maybe it was Captain Greer. Maybe it was the universe. Oh, and I also thought it would be great to have a steady paycheck.”
In the waiting room, they eventually meet one another’s eyes, first shyly and briefly, then steadily. Finally they break into rueful grins, testing the sensation of being part of a family, while Mr. Deming, taking a break, sipping from a cup of warm coffee, watches.
Robert Fromberg is author of the memoir How to Walk with Steve (Latah Books). His other prose has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Colorado Review, Indiana Review, and many other journals.