Robert Fromberg ~ In Which I Admire and Gently Probe Mr. Richard Deming’s First Novelization of The Mod Squad

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.