(Mark J. Terrill ~ Associated Press)
The kid from a white-bread San Francisco suburb figured he would be better suited to right wrongs with a gun on his hip than a pen in his hand. "I hated writing stuff and not having impact," he said.
And what better place to hone street smarts than the nation's most violent ganglands? As it turned out, it also inspired him to write more.
Beall, 35, author of "L.A. Rex," is working on his second novel when he's not investigating gang killings in the city's blood-soaked 77th Division in South Central or riding a horse through the scrub and chaparral-covered hills of Griffith Park, where he met recently for an interview.
The restless cop has furiously scribbled to stay sane -- filling stacks of legal pads with the blood and pathos scraped from his brain after long nights at crime scenes.
Though "L.A. Rex" -- released recently in paperback -- is decidedly fiction, Beall's editor, Sean McDonald, speculated that it was no coincidence that an early draft inadvertently lapsed at times into first person. And reading the book, it's hard not to imagine Beall's square chin and deep-set eyes, crowned by the folded brim of a baseball cap, on LAPD rookie Ben Halloran, a character in the book.
"L.A. Rex" brings readers in the squad car with Halloran, an apparent softy from the posh west side of town, and his kneecap-cracking training officer, Miguel Marquez. The two roughly police the same South Central streets where Beall has worked for nearly a decade.
Beall also tapped his notes to produce a series of provocative op-ed pieces for the Los Angeles Times -- essays on gangs, race and poverty that erase the thin blue line and redraw it in a shade of gray.
"L.A. Rex," originally released in hardcover by Riverhead Books last year, similarly smudges the line between good and bad. Underpinning a bloody and frenetic story populated by gangsta rappers, the Mexican Mafia and dirty cops is a commentary on a broken, hopeless and racist society. The title "L.A. Rex" is a play on the Sophocles tragedy "Oedipus the King" and highlights the bloody conflict between characters battling to become king of L.A.
"Without racism and segregation, there wouldn't be any of this," Beall said, underscoring a thematic thread that runs through much of his published work.
Beall has signed on to a sequel, "The Lion Hunters," which will include a story line loosely based on Los Angeles' Rampart Scandal, in which a group of anti-gang officers framed dozens of innocent people. He also is penning a screenplay of "L.A. Rex" for Scott Rudin, producer of such films as "The Queen," "The Hours" and the forthcoming adaptation of the literary novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay."
Some reviewers dismissed Beall's debut as implausible, but the outlandish often is straight off the streets of L.A. One, for example, suggested an LAPD background check would have found a recruit in the book had gang ties before enlisting him. But Beall said the character was in part based on an actual drug trafficker who infiltrated his academy class.
"There were times I had to tone reality down to make it more believable," Beall said.
His most recent op-ed addressed this challenge. Friends decried a character in the novel who owns a pet jaguar as outlandish. But soon after, real life sheriff's deputies trapped a Siberian tiger wandering around the San Fernando Valley.
"But how could I write a tiger into Simi Valley without sounding like Gabriel Garcia Marquez on angel dust?" he wrote in the essay.
Offbeat stories about life on the force are typically reserved for fellow officers exposed to the same depravity and absurdity, said retired LAPD Lt. Raymond Foster, who runs the Web site www.police-writers.com.
"You build up this stock of experiences and you can't tell anyone on the outside," he said.
But some, like Beall and the 730 police authors catalogued on Foster's site, eventually feel compelled to share them with a wider audience.
Beall didn't talk about his writing to many other cops until "L.A. Rex" came out. His supervisor in the gang homicide unit, Cmdr. Pat Gannon, was the first to learn about Beall's literary pursuits and it was by accident; Gannon ran into him at a book signing when visiting his daughter in Berkeley last year.
"I said, 'What are you doing here,' and the next thing, I'm looking up and see a poster of Will," Gannon said. "He was a little sheepish."
Beall said he has received universally positive reviews from fellow officers who have read the book -- including Gannon.
Other police writers of fiction and nonfiction have found it difficult to straddle both worlds. The most famous is Joseph Wambaugh, an LAPD sergeant who said he was forced to leave the department after his 1974 nonfiction book about the kidnapping of two police officers, "The Onion Field," hit it big. Criminals, victims and fellow officers had begun to treat Wambaugh not as a cop but as a famous writer.
Still, Beall, with Hollywood attention and publishing money, intends to keep his day job.
"The problem for me is that I've seen the big picture down there -- the third world homicide rate in the fifth largest economy in the world," he said. "And I can't unsee it, whether I go Hollywood or not. I'd rather be out there and take my shot at doing something about it."