Joseph Wambaugh (1937 – ) is a former policeman who transformed the sub-genre of the police novel into serious literature of a hard-boiled nature. His first four books and his work on the Police Story television series in the 1970s set standards of realism, dialogue, and character development for subsequent writers or turned them in new directions. In a very real sense he is the father of modern television police drama.
The son of a policeman, Wambaugh was born in East Pittsburgh, joined the Marines at seventeen, and married at eighteen. After an Associate degree from Chafee College, he joined the police and rose through the ranks from patrolman to detective sergeant (1960-74). While working as a policeman, he attended Cal State University Los Angeles, receiving his B.A. and M.A. From his Catholic faith to his young marriage and Marine service, Wambaugh epitomized the police force. But then he began to “moonlight,” as he said, writing about that life and his colleagues. When he published The New Centurions in 1971 the acclaim was instant and unanimous. “Let us dispel forever the notion that Mr. Wambaugh is only a former cop who happens to write books,” wrote 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 police in particular as a means of expressing his views on society in general.” 1 The novel traces young men through the police academy, the streets of their first assignments, and into the Watts riots of 1968. From idealistic beginnings they evolve into hardened and corrupted warriors who feel they have been sent to the trenches to fight a Leviathan. John Greenway wrote in National Review that the novel was “incomparably the best revelation of the lives and souls of policemen ever written.” 2
In The Blue Knight(1972) Wambaugh depicted the end of a policeman’s career. Bumper Morgan made a twenty-year career of accepting free meals, roughing up informers and scoring with prostitutes, coming to believe that he is the law on his beat. Occasionally he arrests someone, but he always makes personally sure that criminals are punished. To do so he perjures himself in a trial and is caught. The novel focuses on his last three days of work, during which his behavior is unchanged. It “abounds in vivid vignettes of police life and the Los Angeles streets,” Eric Pace wrote: “Its warty portrayal of the police will make it controversial in some Quarters.” 3
Wambaugh, still a cop at this point, had to take an extended leave, during which he wrote his most significant work. The problem was not only that superiors disapproved of his portraits of cops as human beings or of his writing career, but that fans and interviewers showed up at his station house. On his leave Wambaugh researched and wrote the true story of young officers Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger, who in 1963 pulled over a car and were taken hostage by a pair of small-time criminals who had just robbed a liquor store. They were driven to a remote onion field where Campbell was killed. Though convicted, the killers’ executions were delayed for seven years by the new “Miranda rights” ruling, various appeals, and retrials. Hettinger felt so guilty for failing to save Campbell that he had a nervous breakdown, was fired for shoplifting, and ended up farming only a few miles from the fatal onion field. “I feel I was put on earth to write this story,” Wambaugh said. “Nothing could ever stop me from writing The Onion Field. I felt it was my sole reason for living.” Critics unanimously praised the book, comparing it to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and the author to Theodore Dreiser and James T. Farrell. 4
“Very little in Wambaugh’s first two novels prepares one for the scabrous humor and ferocity of The Choirboys,” wrote John Leonard of his fourth book. This is the story of ten cops who meet after hours in L.A.’s MacArthur Park to relieve their stress through drinking, story-telling, and violence. This ritual “choir practice” defends them against the knowledge that the citizens they “protect” are only a shade different than the criminals they arrest. Written after his resignation and after reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Wambaugh leaps into black humor in this novel. “Heller enabled me to find my voice,” said Wambaugh. 5
Wambaugh also created and consulted for Police Story, an NBC television series that changed the portrayal of police (Wikipedia link). Since Dragnet‘s Joe Friday and The Untouchables’ Elliot Ness in the 1950s, the medium’s depiction of police had been simple-mindedly divided between cool, nonplused styles and gun-emptying superheroes. In Police Story cops were human beings with neuroses, family problems and character flaws. Rather than shoot’em-ups, “the heroic acts they perform are just coping,” said Wambaugh. Such later series as Hill Street Blues, Law and Order, NYPD and Homicide owe their form and tone to Wambaugh’s pioneering work.
The author wrote three novels in the tone of The Choirboys in the early 1980s, none as highly praised as the original, but all suggesting further comparison to Joseph Heller. Wambaugh also scripted two of them for movies (The Black Marble, 1978, 1980; The Glitter Dome, 1981, 1984). He wrote a non-fiction book on police and aliens along the California/Mexico border (Lines and Shadows, 1987) and another on the search for an English serial killer (The Blooding, 1989). The author’s most recent work departs from L.A. and realism. Both Finnegan’s Week (1993) and Floaters(1997) are set in San Diego and show some campiness: Finbar Finnegan is a detective pursuing fifty-five gallons of lethal “guthion,” and his female partner “Bad Dog” seeks two-thousand pair of Navy shoes. In the early 2000s he began to teach screen writing at the University of California – San Diego, and in 2002 published Fire Lover and in 2006 Hollywood Station followed by Hollywood Crows (2008) and Hollywood Moon (2009).
1 Evan Hunter, in Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series 42, 458. 2 John Greenway, National Review, March 9, 1971, p. 271, in Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series 42, 458. 3 Eric Pace, Ibid. Original in New York Times, February 13, 1972, n.p. 4 Ibid. 459. 5 Pace, Ibid.