Joseph Wambaugh, a former LAPD detective sergeant, is the bestselling author of seventeen prior works of fiction and nonfiction. In 2004, he was named Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. He lives in Southern California.
Be On the Lookout for Joseph WambaughPERSONAL
Born January 22, 1937, in East Pittsburgh, PA; son of Joseph A. (a police officer) and Anne Malloy Wambaugh; married Dee Allsup November 26, 1955; children: Mark (deceased), David, Jeannette.
Chaffey College, AA, 1958; California State College (now University), Los Angeles, BA, 1960, MA, 1968.
Los Angeles Police Department, Los Angeles, CA, 1960–1974, began as patrolman, became detective sergeant; writer, 1971–present.
U.S. Marine Corps, 1954–1957.
AWARDS & HONORS
Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Allan Poe special award for nonfiction, The Onion Field, 1974; Edgar Allan Poe award for best screenplay, The Black Marble, 1981; Rodolfo Walsh Prize for Investigative Journalism, International Association of Crime Writers, for Lines and Shadows, 1989.
The New Centurions, Atlantic (Little Brown, 1971)
The Blue Knight, Atlantic (Little Brown, 1972)
The Choirboys (Delacorte, 1975)
The Black Marble (Delacorte, 1978)
The Glitter Dome (Morrow, 1981)
The Delta Star (Morrow, 1983)
The Secrets of Harry Bright (Morrow, 1985)
The Golden Orange (Morrow, 1990)
Fugitive Nights (Morrow, 1992)
Finnegan’s Week (Morrow, 1993)
Floaters (Bantam Books, 1996)
Hollywood Station (Little, Brown, 2006)
Hollywood Crows (Little, Brown, 2008)
Hollywood Moon (Little, Brown, 2009)
Hollywood Hills (Little, Brown, 2010)
The Onion Field (Delacorte, 1973)
Lines and Shadows (Morrow, 1984)
Echoes in the Darkness (Morrow, 1987)
The Blooding (Morrow, 1989)
Fire Lover (HarperCollins, 2002)
The Onion Field (screenplay) (Avco Embassy, 1979)
The Black Marble (screenplay) (Avco Embassy, 1980)
Echoes in the Darkness (teleplay, miniseries) (CBS-TV, 1987)
Fugitive Nights (teleplay) (NBC-TV, 1993)
Creator and consultant for Police Story, television series (NBC-TV, 1973-1977)
Creator and consultant for The Blue Knight, television series (NBC-TV, 1977)
The New Centurions was directed by Richard Fleischer and released by Columbia Pictures, 1972; The Choirboys was directed by Robert Aldrich and released by Universal Studios, 1977; The Blue Knight was produced by NBC-TV as a television miniseries starring William Holden in 1973, and then by CBS-TV as a regular series with George Kennedy in the title role, 1977.
Though Joseph Wambaugh spent ten years with the Los Angeles Police Department before publishing his first novel, The New Centurions, and fourteen years altogether, he is more than just a cop-turned-writer, and his novels are much more than just “cop stories”: they have effectively redefined the genre of police drama and the way police officers are depicted therein. Wambaugh’s cops are frightened, profane, violent, and fallible, forced to protect citizens who resent them. His writing—both fiction and nonfiction—“takes us into the minds and hearts, into the nerves and (sometimes literally) into the guts of other human beings,” claims Thomas Fleming in the New York Times Book Review. “It achieves a mixture of empathy and objectivity that creates genuine understanding.” His ability to evoke sympathy for crude and often distasteful characters has made Wambaugh popular with both readers and critics. “Let us dispel forever the notion that Mr. Wambaugh is only a former cop who happens to write books,” comments Evan Hunter in the New York Times Book Review. “This would be tantamount to saying that Jack London was first and foremost a sailor. Mr. Wambaugh is, in fact, a writer of genuine power, style, wit and originality, who has chosen to write about the police in particular as a means of expressing his views on society in general.”
Wambaugh’s reputation as a powerful writer was established with his first four books: The New Centurions, The Blue Knight, The Onion Field, and The Choirboys. The first two were penned while Wambaugh was still a full-time police officer, and while in retrospect he often dismisses them as his “moonlighting” books, they instantly shattered the preconceptions many readers had of cops. Published in 1971, The New Centurions follows three young men through the Police Academy, onto the streets of Los Angeles, and ultimately to the battlefield of the 1965 riots in Watts. Along the way, the reader witnesses how idealistic cadets became callous and distant, feeling that they have been cast—against their wills—in the role of civilization’s front line. John Greenway, writing in the National Review, hails Wambaugh’s first novel as “incomparably the best revelation of the lives and souls of policemen ever written.”
Whereas The New Centurions depicts the beginnings of a police officer’s career, 1972’s The Blue Knight depicts the end. Its protagonist, Officer Bumper Morgan, spends his last three days on the force in much the same way he had spent the previous twenty years: accepting free meals, leaning on “stoolies,” taking liberties with certain obliging females, and occasionally making an arrest. David K. Jeffrey, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, describes Morgan as “a fallible human being, fat, crude, and stubborn, who has been a cop for so long he now believes he is the law. He believes, too, that the legal system often corrupts and thwarts justice; he therefore ‘bends the law’ to ensure that criminals do not go unpunished.” In the end, Morgan perjures himself during a trial to obtain a conviction. The Blue Knight“is an effective study of the ways in which police work can corrupt and change policemen,” Jeffrey continues. The New York Times’s Eric Pace writes that, despite some flaws, “The Blue Knight abounds in vivid vignettes of police life and the Los Angeles streets. It effectively conveys the loneliness of an aging man who puts too much of himself into his work.” Pace goes on to predict: “Its warty portrayal of the police will make it controversial in some quarters.”
Wambaugh’s “moonlighting” novels did, in fact, create something of a stir, particularly in the offices of the LAPD. Wambaugh’s superiors were not pleased that the young officer had written an “inside” view of their department, let alone one that featured officers who accepted gratuities and committed perjury. Wambaugh recalls in a Publishers Weekly interview the reaction of his superior officers: “The problem arose because [my novels] depicted cops as human beings, complete with rotten moods and frailties, and not as the robots people are accustomed to seeing on television shows about policemen…. I could see the administration being mad if I were giving away secrets, but I’m not: there are no secrets to reveal.” Still, pressure from superiors and his increasing celebrity forced Wambaugh to take an extended leave from the LAPD, during which time he researched and wrote what would become his most important work.
In 1963, two young Los Angeles policemen, officers Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger, pulled over a suspicious-looking car; the men inside, a pair of small-time criminals who had spent the evening robbing liquor stores, overpowered the policemen and drove them, at gunpoint, to a remote onion field, where Campbell was executed. Hettinger escaped, and the two men were apprehended the next day. Though they were soon brought to trial and convicted of murder, the introduction of the Escobedo and Miranda laws (designed to protect the rights of criminal suspects) delayed their executions; the ensuing appeals and retrials dragged on for seven years, making theirs the longest criminal proceeding in California history. In the meantime, Hettinger suffered a nervous breakdown, became suicidal, and was thrown off the force for shoplifting. He finally became a farmer, working just a few miles from that same onion field. Wambaugh transformed the story of officers Campbell and Hettinger into his 1974 book The Onion Field. It was his first work of nonfiction, based entirely upon interviews, case records, and some 45,000 pages of court transcriptions. An officer during the time of the murder, Wambaugh often cites the Hettinger case as his motivation for becoming a writer. He explains in Playboy: “I feel I was put on earth to write this story, and I’ve never had that feeling before or since. Nothing could ever stop me from writing The Onion Field. I felt it was my sole reason for living, and that no one else understood or knew the ramifications of the onion field murder.”
James Lardner of the New York Times Book Review calls The Onion Field “a perfect double helix of a narrative in which the harrowing stories of two policemen and two criminals wound around each other, replicating what is laughably called the criminal justice system.” The novel’s principal theme is guilt and punishment: for the murderers, who feel no guilt at all, punishment is slow in coming; however, for Hettinger, who has assumed the blame for his partner’s death, punishment in the form of ostracization is swift. Jeffrey, quoting Wambaugh, explains: “Policemen believe that ‘no man-caused calamity happens by chance, that there is always a step that should have been taken, would have been taken if the [officer] had been alert, cautious, brave, aggressive—in short, if he’d been like a prototype policeman.’ By this measure, Hettinger was a failure who shared responsibility for the murder of Campbell just as surely as did [the murderers].” Karl Hettinger died in 1993 of alcohol-related liver failure, perhaps the onion field’s final victim.
Critics praised The Onion Field. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, writing in the New York Times, comments: “Before he is finished, Mr. Wambaugh tries to explore all the ambiguities of the case, and even to see the hopeful side of what he could easily have dismissed as a thoroughly destructive series of incidents. In fact, The Onion Field is finally quite an impressive book.” Reviewer James Conaway compares the work to another chilling nonfiction work, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, praising the author’s ability to adapt his skill as a novelist in writing non-fiction narrative history. “Wambaugh takes greater liberties with his characters and he lacks Capote’s neatness,” Conaway admits in the New York Times Book Review. “But in terms of scope, revealed depth of character, and dramatic coherence, this is the more ambitious book.” He concludes: “With his third book, Wambaugh convincingly demonstrates that he belongs to the tradition of Dreiser and Farrell—constructing, from a glut of well-observed detail, unspectacular and often squalid lives lived among the concrete freeways, the bright, tawdry strips, the transience, brutality and beleaguered decency of a society set on the edge of America.”
It was after the publication of The Onion Field that Wambaugh resigned from the police force, citing as a reason the constant phone calls and visitations to the station by interviewers and fans. “Yet, if this resignation saddened him personally, it also seems to have had a liberating effect on his writing,” observes Jeffrey. Beyond the reach of superior officers, Wambaugh set out, in 1975, to write his “truest” police novel yet.
“Very little in Wambaugh’s first two novels prepares one for the scabrous humor and ferocity of The Choirboys,” notes John Leonard of Wambaugh’s third novel in the New York Times Book Review. According to a reviewer for Atlantic Monthly, “Mr. Wambaugh appears to have thrown into this novel everything that loyalty and discretion deleted from his work while he remained a member of the Los Angeles Police Department. The action is constant and the dialogue is tough. The writing has a careless barbarity that may be deliberate, for Mr. Wambaugh is explaining that police work is a one-way ticket to hell.”
The Choirboys is the story of ten L.A. cops who alleviate the pain and stress of their job through a ritual called “choir practice”—debaucherous after-hours meetings around a MacArthur Park duck pond, filled with aimless violence and alcoholic howling. Jeffrey explains: “The manic hilarity and drunkenness at their meetings serve the choirboys as defense mechanism against full consciousness of the fact that the ordinary people they protect are, by and large, barbaric savages, capable of any horror.” The tone of The Choirboys is dark and satiric, told in a series of comic, yet ominous, vignettes. In this way, Wambaugh’s novel has been compared to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22—a work Wambaugh cites as a major influence. He recalls in the Chicago Tribune: “After [The Onion Field] I decided to try something very different, to use black comedy to deal with serious themes. And Heller enabled me to find my voice.”
In retrospect, Wambaugh often describes the writing of The Choirboys as the turning point in his career, the place where he “found his voice.” The novels that followed—among them The Black Marble, The Glitter Dome, and The Golden Orange—have maintained the gallows humor established in The Choirboys. Richard Eder observes in the Los Angeles Times Book Review: “Wambaugh’s cops, like the soldiers in Catch-22, are men and women in a frenzy, zany grotesques made that way by the outrageous nature of the things they deal with,” while the New York Times’s John Leonard proclaims: “There is more absurd action in a chapter of Wambaugh than there is in the entire collected works of George V. Higgins.” Digby Diehl, looking back on Wambaugh’s career in the Detroit News, calls the ex-cop “a good writer who becomes better with each successive book.”
Reviewers also continue to praise Wambaugh’s nonfiction works, which include Lines and Shadows, Echoes in the Darkness, and The Blooding. Whether examining the chaotic relations between the police and illegal aliens along the California-Mexico border, as he does in Lines and Shadows, or tracing the search for a brutal English killer, as in The Blooding, Wambaugh has proven his ability to create suspense and drama with accounts of actual events. While some critics suggest that Wambaugh excels in writing fiction rather than nonfiction, most agree that Wambaugh’s books make for absorbing reading. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Walter Walker called The Blooding “a well-written, meticulously researched, nontechnical tour de force,” and the Washington Post Book World’s Douglas E. Winter hailed it as “a blessed respite from the lubricous leers of the tabloid school of crime journalism.”
Before The New Centurions, The Blue Knight, and the highly praised television series Police Story (for which Wambaugh created and consulted), police officers were usually presented as cool and cerebral, like Dragnet’s Joe Friday, or as fearless superhero-detectives, like The Untouchables’ Elliot Ness, who crash into a villain’s hideout with both guns blaring. “Generally the cops in my books don’t perform heroic acts the likes of which will earn them a Medal of Valor,” Wambaugh explained in the Los Angeles Times.“No, the heroic acts they perform are just coping with their character disorders or neuroses or whatever, and continuing to do the job with the worst of people.They don’t all make it…But while they cope, they’re heroic to me.”
Wambaugh’s willingness and ability to display police as human has earned his work a special place in American literature.
“What he writes is important because there are few really knowledgeable men who try to tell the public what a cop’s life is like,” claims Pace, and Greenway concurs: “Joseph Wambaugh’s narrative revelations of that most misunderstood of all professions are absolutely required reading for anyone hoping to know humanity in its naked reality.” Wambaugh himself expresses the purpose of his novels more simply:“The cops in my books have been called brutal, racist, cheating, fornicating bastards [but] all they are, in the end, is people. What the hell does anybody expect?”
—Biographical profile courtesy of Contemporary Authors New Revision Series