Joseph Wambaugh Essay - Critical Essays

Joseph Wambaugh Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

It is not the subject matter (crime and police work) or the types of characters (police officers, criminals, and victims) that distinguish Joseph Wambaugh’s books: It is the intimacy he develops between the reader and the police officers. Like a trusted partner, the reader is privy to others’ baser qualities—including vulgarity, bigotry, and cruelty. Yet the reader also comes to know human beings, and that knowledge allows for affection, sometimes admiration, and always a shared fatalism about police work: It is an after-the-fact effort—after the robbery, after the rape, after the child abuse, after the murder.

This fatalistic outlook does not develop from book to book; it is present in full measure from Wambaugh’s first novel:It is the natural tendency of things toward chaos. . . . It’s a very basic natural law Kilvinsky always said, and only the order makers could temporarily halt its march, but eventually there will be darkness and chaos. . . .

The point is convincingly dramatized through the police confrontations during the 1965 Watts riots.

Even the survivors—those police officers who finish enough shifts to reach retirement and the prized pension—pay with a piece of their souls. The wise Kilvinsky in The New Centurions learns all the natural laws and then shoots himself. Bumper Morgan, the blue knight in the book of that title, is the kind of police officer who radicals had in mind when shouting “pig.” He is a fat, freeloading womanizer (teenage belly dancers preferred), and the reader would probably turn away in disgust if, beneath the crudity, loneliness and depression were not detectable.

The Onion Field

Victimization of police officers is one of Wambaugh’s recurring themes. They are victimized by the dislike of those they swear to protect and by the justice system they swear to uphold. Two of his books make this premise particularly convincing. Writing for the first time in the genre of the nonfiction, or documentary, novel, Wambaugh in The Onion Field painstakingly reconstructed the 1963 kidnapping of two fellow officers, the murder of one, and the trial that followed. During that trial, the surviving officer became as much a defendant as the two killers.

To Wambaugh’s credit, however, he stays out of the story. Here, for example, are none of the intrusions found in The New Centurions. Nowhere does one officer turn to another and inquire about psychological-sociological implications, such as “Gus, do you think policemen are in a better position to understand criminality than, say, penologists or parole officers or other behavioral scientists?” The questions and answers have not disappeared, however. They are simply left either for the reader to ask and answer in the course of reading the book or for one of the force to understand as an integral part of the story. “I don’t fudge or try to make it [a true-crime story] better by editorializing or dramatizing,” Wambaugh said, “I try to be a real investigative reporter and write it as it happened as best I can.”

Lines and Shadows

The realization of Dick Snider in Lines and Shadows (1984) is a case in point. After watching San Diego cops chase illegal aliens through the city’s San Ysidro section, Snider knows that the crime of illegal entry and the various authorities’ efforts to stop it are simply shadows hiding the truth. Illegal entry is, in fact, only about money: “There is not a significant line between two countries. It’s between two economies.”

In studying so closely the ruined careers, marriages, and lives of the Border Alien Robbery Force, the BARF Squad, as it became known, Wambaugh also provides an explicit answer to a puzzle within all of his books—indeed, to a puzzle about police inside or outside the covers of a book. Why would they want such a job? Wambaugh’s answer is that they are caught up as the players in a national myth:They gave their nightly performance and almost everyone applauded. They did it the only way they knew—not ingeniously, merely instinctively—by trying to resurrect in the late twentieth century a mythic hero who never was, not even in the nineteenth century. A myth nevertheless cherished by Americans beyond the memory of philosophers, statesmen, artists and scientists who really lived: the quintessentially American myth and legend of the Gunslinger, who with only a six-shooter and star dares venture beyond the badlands.

The Glitter Dome

Those who recognize the myth and how they have been used by it clearly have great difficulty continuing to play their parts. Yet these are the most likable and most interesting police officers in Wambaugh’s fiction—Martin Welborn, for example (The Glitter Dome, 1981). He is a ploddingly thorough detective, with a penchant for orderliness in his police work and in his...

(The entire section is 2023 words.)