At the heat of the story is Dinko Babich, a young longshoreman currently suspended from work for smoking marijuana, and Lita Medina, an illegal alien from Mexico who is working as a dancer (and other things) in a nightclub. Lita is only 19 but already has a long history. Dinko, an immature 31, falls head over heels in love with her.
The problem is that Lita sees one of her fellow dancers arguing with a man in Korean; the dancer turns up dead. The man who killed her knows that Lita is a liability. And liabilities have to be eliminated.
What prevents the story from becoming too dark is Wambaugh’s trademark humor – the jokes, the situations and the pranks that come from almost all of the characters. That humor, itself often dark, leavens what could be a depressing view of life and humanity.
The fascinating aspect of Harbor Nocturne is that there are no “major” characters dominating the story, but instead a host of finely drawn supporting characters, from the policemen and the villains right down to the minor characters, like the panhandlers dressed as Superheroes in front of Graumann’s Chinese Theatre. Wambaugh has a talent for vivid characterization, but he keeps it in check to prevent any one character from playing a title role.
And that is the essence of Harbor Nocturne: the story is the story itself, the daily grit and grime of police work by men and women who meet each day, and each crime, as it comes.