Friday, August 19, 2011

Friday Is Back

DRAGNET 1968 was not the first tie-in novel based on Jack Webb's pioneering radio and television creation, but it was the first based on the show's 1960s continuation. Actor/director Webb began DRAGNET as a 1949 radio program, bringing it to NBC-TV for an eight-season run in 1951. Enormously popular and influential on many films and television series that followed, DRAGNET returned to NBC in 1967, barely changed at all outside of its shift to color and the addition of Harry Morgan (DECEMBER BRIDE) as Joe Friday's new partner.

One of the new series' busiest writers was David H. Vowell, whose background was in news and documentaries; his environmentally conscious SAY GOODBYE received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature in 1971. Even though it was strangely unusual for television writers to also pen the tie-in novels of their shows, Popular Library picked Vowell for DRAGNET 1968. He wrote the notorious episode "The Big High"--the one about the young couple whose baby drowns in the bathtub while they're smoking marijuana--and it's no surprise that Pot In Suburbia is also the theme of his book.

Allegedly based on actual events, like the TV show, DRAGNET 1968 is about Friday and Gannon's (the detectives played by Webb and Morgan on TV) investigation of the suicide of a fifteen-year-old girl they had found in an alley on a Sunday morning. What we know that the cops don't is that she had been a guest at Frank Coffee's pot party the night before, where an acid trip spurred her to scratch bloody streaks into her face and arms with her fingernails. Wanting to be rid of her, Frank's guest Stuart Allen (a typically-for-DRAGNET unsympathetic gay character) dumps her in the alley for the cops to find.

Only 132 pages plus an appendix, DRAGNET 1968 is unusual in that it doesn't stick to the detectives' point of view, which was the show's style. Vowell puts us in the head of not only Allen and Coffee, but also Frank's teenage son Bob, whose exposure to his parents' casual drug use sets him up for trouble of his own.

Frankly, this material is less interesting and not what anyone buying a DRAGNET novel wants to read. The series thrived on the matter-of-fact portrayal of police methods, and when Vowell sticks Friday and Gannon's plodding, the book works well. Maybe Vowell didn't think he could stretch the investigation to book-length, though I wish he had tried.

The other problem is that the plot may be interesting enough for a half-hour TV episode, but it's more than a little lackadaisical for a novel. The cover blurb of "a bizarre menace stalking Los Angeles" is not really representative of the book's focus on a middle-aged businessman who drops acid in his living room.

1 comment:

R.A.M.'67 said...

Surprising to find out this Dragnet novel deviates from the show's storytelling approach.

Any idea on how the '50s Dragnet novels were done? I remember them being mentioned in a 2-part article about Jack Webb in Filmfax magazine.

"The Big High" is my second favorite [color] Dragnet episode after "The Big LSD" (a.k.a. the one with Blueboy); the downbeat ending of the child drowning in the bathtub still gives me chills!