Joseph Wambaugh Wambaugh, Joseph (Vol. 3) - Essay

Wambaugh, Joseph (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wambaugh, Joseph 1937–

Wambaugh, an American police detective, writes thoughtful and realistic novels about police work. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36.)

Wambaugh is no O'Hara, but 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. Not that a policeman's perceptions are necessarily so sublime that they deserve depicting for artistic reasons. But with crime mounting in the cities, his subculture becomes more and more important to those who look to him for protection….

The trouble is that, given [The Blue Knight's] episodic plot, the reader gets the feeling that Wambaugh is flipping through his notebook and addressing himself systematically to headings such as "Workings of Bookie Ring" and "Importance of Badge."

Eric Pace, "A Patrolman of the Old School," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 3, 1972, p. 4.

There is no character so marginal [in The Onion Field] that he is not accorded a miniature biography: some social background, a smattering of childhood reverie, a briefing on style and spiritual condition up to date. Commendable as is the literary impulse behind this sort of treatment, it can be wearing when conferred on the innumerable desk sergeants, lawyers' assistants, and aunts and other relatives who appear for a moment, drop their biographies, and go away for good.

The novel, which is based on real events, is in touch with all the folklore of our time with regard to criminals and policemen, and Mr. Wambaugh has applied himself earnestly to getting it all down straight. Small-time, as opposed to big-time, losers, stern father figures, ambitious mothers, paternalistic detectives, seducing priests—they are all straight from the mainstream of our contemporary orthodoxies. This much can be said about Mr. Wambaugh: He is thorough and he is a believer—two strains that are not altogether unhelpful when one is putting together a compendium of our social wisdom and getting it into the form of a novel. He is good on the police and less good on sociology and jurisprudence. He has written a murder story and freighted it with trimmings, but that is the way things are nowadays. The reader who wants his crime and who is willing to endure social edification for it will get no worse than he deserves in Mr. Wambaugh.

Dorothy Rabinowitz, in Saturday Review/World (© 1973 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), September 11, 1973, p. 47.

As Detective Sergeant Joe Wambaugh revealed in two bestselling novels, The New Centurions and The Blue Knight, the life of a Los Angeles police officer is tough. Now it is even tougher for Wambaugh, the celebrity cop. Prisoners keep asking for his autograph. The guys at the precinct are forever drilling him about which character in what book is actually who in real life. That is perhaps one reason why Wambaugh this time chose a "factual novel"—real names and all—in the manner of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.

The Onion Field is the anatomy of an infamous 1963 Los Angeles cop killing….

Wambaugh's narrative tends to plod whenever he plays the tireless gumshoe, hauling in facts that are, in the clarion cry of the myriad lawyers on the case, irrelevant and immaterial.

Detective Wambaugh is thorough. But he leaves, in fact, few clues as to his prime motive for re-creating what he calls "the most maddening case of any detective's life." One clue is buried midway in the book when Wambaugh tells of a certain "young vice officer" who strongly opposes the department's do-or-die dictum on survival as suicidal. However, that anonymous cop, who undoubtedly is Wambaugh, refuses to challenge his superiors at the time because "he lacked that kind of courage and he knew it." Now, with the courage of a rich cop who stays on the beat only for "kicks," Wambaugh apparently has written a book to clear his own conscience as well as to help a tormented fellow officer.

Ray Kennedy, "Annals of the Crime," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1973 by Time Inc.), September 24, 1973, pp. 126-27.

In The New Centurions and The Blue Knight, Joseph Wambaugh wrote with considerable skill the story of policemen who were not pigs. [The Onion Field] is a very different matter: it is the true story, based on carefully accumulated evidence…. In a manner reminiscent of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, the author moves slowly in establishing the identity of the four men involved….

The reading is necessarily slow and dense, because of the legal confusion about what actually happened. Some of the court proceedings would be comic were it not for the slow-burning exasperation of the author. Wambaugh does it all deadpan. He is coldly intent in defending a fellow officer who was killed and a friend who was driven mad.

Edward Weeks, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1973 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), October, 1973, p. 129.