Joseph Wambaugh Biography

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The only child of Anne Malloy and Joseph Aloysius Wambaugh, Joseph Aloysius Wambaugh, Jr., was born on January 22, 1937, in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The German surname accounts for one-quarter of his ethnic heritage; the other three-quarters is Roman Catholic Irish. His was a family of hard workers, many of whom labored in the Pittsburgh steel mills.

Wambaugh’s California settings originate in his personal experience. His father had been police chief in East Pittsburgh before the family moved to California in 1951. Three years later, Wambaugh left high school to enlist in the United States Marine Corps. During his service time, in 1956, he and Dee Allsup, his high school sweetheart, were married. They had three children; their son Mark would later die at the age of twenty-one. On Wambaugh’s discharge from the Marines in 1957, the couple returned to California, where Wambaugh worked at different jobs while earning an associate degree in English from Chaffey College in 1958.

In 1960, Wambaugh graduated from California State College, Los Angeles, with a bachelor’s degree and joined the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) as a burglary detective. However casually he came to police work (he once told an interviewer that he joined the police department because he had “nothing better to do” and because the money was more than he had ever earned), he soon found himself deeply involved. He was a solid, commonsense investigator who cracked more than his share of tough cases. He has said that police work relaxed him and soothed his soul.

Wambaugh began writing after he became involved in helping to control the Watts riot. On August 11, 1965, six days of rioting began in the Watts section of South Central Los Angeles following a routine traffic stop. African Americans were tired of abusive treatment from white police officers in the cities, which included the use of water cannons, clubs, and cattle prods. In the ensuring violence, thirty-four people were killed and 856 injured. Nearly four thousand people were arrested and 209 buildings were destroyed. It was a difficult time for citizens and police alike.

Wambaugh intended to maintain both careers, as writer and police officer, but his status as a “celebrity cop” would not permit that option. In 1973, for example, he was presented with California State University’s first outstanding-alumnus award. Interrupting police calls and visits at the Hollenbeck Station were one problem, but great tension developed from the changed relationships inside the department: “The other cops were starting to treat me differently—sort of like a star—and I couldn’t bear being different.” On March 1, 1974, he left the force.

As production consultant for the television series adapted from his novel The Blue Knight (1972), Wambaugh fought to maintain authenticity in the scripts. Indeed, his insistence has become legendary. He filed and won a lawsuit over violations committed against the text when The Choirboys (1975) was made into a film. Indeed, his literary career has been plagued with litigation. “I’ve been under continuous litigation for my writing since 1974,” Wambaugh once told an interviewer. “There’s a million ambulance chasers who say, ’Let’s sue him!’”

The most famous case concerned the murders forming the basis of Wambaugh’s Echoes in the Darkness (1987). On September 14, 1994, Philadelphia’s Upper Merion High School principal Jay C. Smith, convicted of the murders of a schoolteacher and her two children, filed suit against Wambaugh, claiming that he had conspired with police investigators to conceal exculpatory evidence and to fabricate evidence linking Smith to the murders, in order to make money from the book and a television miniseries. Smith lost the case, although his conviction was overturned.

After being sued over The Onion Field, Lines and Shadows, and Echoes in the Darkness, Wambaugh swore off writing nonfiction. The Blooding (1989) was the only...

(The entire section is 1,810 words.)