Introduction

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Wambaugh, Joseph 1937–

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Wambaugh, an American novelist, writes from his own experiences as a police detective. (See also CLC, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36.)

Phoebe-Lou Adams

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Mr. Wambaugh appears to have thrown into [The Choirboys] 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.

Phoebe-Lou Adams, "PLA: 'The Choir Boys'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1975, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 236, No. 5, November, 1975, p. 124.

John Leonard

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It's as though "Catch-22" had been written by Popeye Doyle.

Twice in "The Choirboys" Joseph Wambaugh stops to think out loud about what he's trying to tell us. Both times he puts his words into the mouth of Baxter Slate, who, improbably, grew up in Dominican Catholic schools and studied classical literature before becoming a cop and a choirboy….

Neither of these stops is necessary. They are like sandwich boards, advertising a place in which the reader is already trapped. Wambaugh has set up housekeeping in a sewer; we don't need any reminders of what we can smell all around us….

Very little in Wambaugh's first two novels prepares one for the scabrous humor and ferocity of "The Choirboys." "The New Centurions" (1971) and "The Blue Knight" (1972) were bittersweet slices of naturalism, unlikely Hamlets on wry crisp, as if to elaborate the extenuating circumstance that cops, too, have feelings and may often be the victims of their particularity. In "The Choirboys" Wambaugh comes on like a Céline derailed along the laugh-track. His characters are a brutalized "M.A.S.H." unit. Their giggle is a kind of howling, most of which can't be quoted in a family newspaper. (p. 6)

Not quite all the humor in "The Choirboys" pumps the stomach….

Nonetheless, most of the jokes are intentionally ugly, as when the son of choirboy Roscoe Rules submits to his father their sickly pet turtle. Rules cuts off the turtle's head with a pair of pliers and says, "Now we can use him for a paperweight." As, perhaps, Rules himself is used. Wambaugh proposes an anarchy that lusts for accidents to happen and assigns blame randomly; a uniformed proletariat to mop up our bloody mess—a kind of Drano for dissolving sludge in society's clogged plumbing—which, at the same time, is unable to save itself from being wasted; a necessary alienation, an "ordinary" brutishness, a lethal banality, an imponderable … what? We aren't dignified enough to be evil.

Other writers have pounded on the same chord, but it's been easy not to hear them because the sound is an imaginative construction, a surly abstraction, a thesis. Wambaugh is as specific, as visceral, as the strangled child who happens to be one's own son. His is a funny book that makes one gag. He is on his way to rediscovering original sin. (p. 7)

John Leonard, "Cops and Dicks," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 2, 1975, pp. 6-7.

John Greenway

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The mischief of The Choirboys has been put into the reader's mind by such certified authorities as former Attorney General Ramsey Clark and his Little Sir Echoes on the New York Times. The slender dozen titular choirboys of Wambaugh's novel give unintended credence to the popular view: they are psychopathically introspective, irresponsible, and dubiously moral Los Angeles night-shift policemen who call a "choir practice" around a slimy duck pond in MacArthur Park whenever one of them suffers an unusually traumatic psychological shock of the sort every dedicated police officer experiences daily. But these choirboys feel more deeply than they think, so their probings deteriorate into an alcoholic stupefaction just short of such paralysis that they cannot cry Ite, missa est before gangbanging two megamammalian police groupies named Ora Lee Tingle and Carolina Moon.

I do not deny Wambaugh's thesis that every police department has its choirboys. To some extent every real police officer is a choirboy. Police work is a terrible profession, subject to physical and psychological strains undreamt of in the ordinary citizen's philosophy….

But I do quarrel with Wambaugh's contention that sensitive policemen express themselves in weepy debauches. Police are silent sufferers who rarely expose their souls, and then only to a trusted partner. (p. 343)

To understand the worlds of Steinbeck and Wambaugh one must read all their writings. Remember that Steinbeck of The Grapes of Wrath finally became Stonebreaker of The League of Noble Christians. Wambaugh's four novels must be read as an integrated tetralogy. His first book, The New Centurions, is incomparably the best revelation of the lives and souls of policemen ever written, giving in one paragraph the theme of the hardly conceived tetralogy—when two police officers, seeing the whole world starting its Armageddon in the chaos of Watts, wonder one to the other whether, two millennia ago, two centurions like themselves prepared to die in a losing battle against the mad militants of Christianity painted a thousand years later in El Greco's saints…. To see Wambaugh's tetralogy in the purest form of the word (three tragic pieces balanced by one humorous one), The Choirboys completes the opus. Without the last two chapters it is the comic novel of the season.

Some readers will not like the rough humor, but policemen for their own survival are rough men. (pp. 343-44)

John Greenway, "The Souls of Police Folk," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1976; 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016), Vol. XXVIII, No. 11, April 2, 1976, pp. 343-44.

David Wilson

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The trouble is that this relentless catalogue of incident [The Choirboys], by turns bizarre and boring, is housed in a narrative built brick by brick with each character waiting in the wings for the night his number comes up. What Mr. Wambaugh calls "the incredibly gritty intimate world of the radio car" (his prolix style readily accommodates such descriptive phrases) unfortunately allows him to bring on his patrolmen in pairs….

Mr. Wambaugh feels for his ordinary cops (and mercilessly pillories their desk-bound superiors): but so insistently that he manages long before the end to lose the very sympathy he wants to enlist on their behalf.

David Wilson, "Copping It," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3865, April 9, 1976, p. 413.

Jerome Charyn

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[In "Black Marble" Joseph Wambaugh] has created a detective, Andrei Mikhailovich Valnikov, who is almost as touching, variable and bravely idiotic as Nabokov's Professor Pnin….

Valnikov isn't one of Wambaugh's familiar "centurions," "choirboys," or "blue knights." He's the "black marble," the loser, the bad-luck piece. (p. 11)

As the misadventures of a sad, unlikely cop, "The Black Marble" is a very funny book. The problem with the novel is that it strays from Valnikov much too often. Joseph Wambaugh hasn't found a story that can contain his fat, haunted detective. The plot seems silly next to Valnikov's "sad runny eyes."… Wambaugh captures the world of dog shows with a beautiful sense of detail. He gives us schnauzers "creamed with cholesterol," seedy trainers and exhibitors who "never saw their animals except at dog shows like these." But the characters around Valnikov are a pile of weak grotesques. Most of them, like Millie Muldoon Gharoujian, a 76-year-old sex amazon, and Philo Skinner, the decrepit dognapper himself, seem to come out of a simpler and much blunter novel. It's as if all of Wambaugh's energy and love have gone into the creation of Detective Sergeant Valnikov.

When he jerks between his characters, Wambaugh often sounds like a radio announcer stuck in a chatty time machine…. (pp. 11, 41)

We'd prefer more of Valnikov, who would "run into a burning house to save a bowl of goldfish." One can hope that Wambaugh will find a better series of obstacles and targets for Valnikov, and put him in another book. (p. 41)

Jerome Charyn, "Los Angeles Cossack," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 8, 1978, pp. 11, 41.

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