Joseph Wambaugh Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

ph_0111207121-Wambaugh.jpg Joseph Wambaugh. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Joseph Wambaugh, the Los Angeles police officer who became a best-selling novelist, began writing out of a need to describe the Watts riots of the 1960’s from the perspective of the police officers assigned to restore order there. He wanted to describe “what it was like for young men, young policemen, to grow up, on the streets, in that dreadful and fascinating era.” The body of his work concerns American police procedure and the lives of those who belong to what has been called the “maligned profession.” It is a world of frustrating, counterproductive rules and regulations drawn up by police administrators who have not been on the streets for years, a world where brutality mixes with courage, corruption with dedication, and evil with honor.

Although occasionally criticized for lengthy philosophical discourses and an undeveloped style, Wambaugh is more often praised for thoughtful and realistic storytelling, and he has been regarded as one of the “few really knowledgeable men who try to tell the public what a cop’s life is like.” Beginning with his first novel, The New Centurions (1970), positive popular response has led to the reproduction of Wambaugh’s stories in other media such as film, television, and audio cassettes. His police officers were violent, afraid, foul-mouthed, and fallible. “Do you like cops? Read The New Centurions,” a New York Times reviewer wrote. “Do you hate cops? Read The New...

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Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In addition to several nonfiction works, including The Onion Field (1973), Echoes in the Darkness (1987), and Fire Lover: A True Story (2002), Joseph Wambaugh (WAHM-baw) has written screenplays for the film adaptations of his works The Onion Field (1979) and The Black Marble (1980) and teleplays for Echoes in the Darkness (1987) and Fugitive Nights (1993). He has also served as creative consultant for the television production of his novel The Blue Knight and for the television series Police Story.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Joseph Wambaugh is widely regarded as an outstanding storyteller and the most respected and prolific American novelist in the field of police procedure novels. All of his fiction and nonfiction works have been best sellers, and, given his cinematic feel for character and scene, many of his works have been developed into television and film projects. With works defined by gritty realism and realistic and vivid characters, Wambaugh has received a range of prestigious genre awards, most notably the Mystery Writers of America’s Special Edgar Allan Poe Award for Nonfiction in 1974 (for The Onion Field) and the 2004 Grand Master Award, a lifetime achievement recognition presented by the same organization.

Critics have long praised Wambaugh’s ability to combine objectivity and empathy in realistic depictions of contemporary life on an urban police force. Few genre novelists have so effectively conveyed the feelings of horror, isolation, despair, frustration, and helplessness experienced daily by police officers, as well as their reactions to these intense psychological pressures. Wambaugh vividly brings to life the heroism and cowardice, anger and compassion, dedication and laziness, insight and ignorance of the average police officer on the beat. His believable portraits of police officers, both men and women, are matched by cogent explorations of the sociopathic personalities of the criminals they battle, all of which draw the reader into a complete and compelling world of drugs, crime, alcoholism, and social and moral decay.


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Donahue, Deirdre. “Wambaugh, Veteran of the Cop Beat.” USA Today, May 8, 1996, p. 1D. This article discusses the popularity, due to their accuracy, of Wambaugh’s books among police officers. Wambaugh also is described as being more mellow in his later works and injecting more humor into them.

Dunn, Adam. “Burning Down the House.” Book 22 (May/June, 2002): 19. Background of Wambaugh’s first book after a six-year hiatus.

Hitt, Jack. “Did the Writer Do It?” GQ 68, no. 7 (July, 1998): 172. Detailed yet highly readable explanation of a lawsuit against Wambaugh stemming from his writing of Echoes in the Darkness.

Jeffrey, David K. “Joseph Wambaugh: Overview.” In St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, edited by Jay P. Pederson. 4th ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 1996. This article leans heavily toward literary criticism, with intermittent biographical information.

“Joseph Aloysius Wambaugh, Jr.” In Current Biography Yearbook: 1980, edited by Charles Moritz. New York: H. H. Wilson, 1981. In addition to a brief biography, this article contains excerpts of press interviews with Wambaugh and critical evaluations of his works.

Kaminsky, Stuart. Behind the Mystery: Top Mystery Writers. Cohasset, Mass.: Hot House Press, 2005. Wambaugh is one of eighteen mystery writers interviewed in this collection who reveals the creative process that goes into producing best-selling mystery fiction.

Malmgren, Carl D. Anatomy of Murder: Mystery, Detective, and Crime Fiction. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 2001. Malmgren discusses Wambaugh’s The Secrets of Harry Bright, alongside many other entries in the mystery and detective genre. Bibliographic references and index.

Meisler, Andy. “Paranoid Among the Palms.” The New York Times, June 13, 1996, p. C1. In this interview, Wambaugh offers his observations on what he considers the erosion of the American judicial system in the late twentieth century. He also provides an overview of his own career as a Los Angeles detective and novelist.

Van Dover, J. Kenneth. Centurions, Knights, and Other Cops: The Police Novels of Joseph Wambaugh. San Bernardino, Calif.: Brownstone Books, 1995. A critical study of Wambaugh’s first fourteen books. Includes an excellent chronology of his life.

Wambaugh, Joseph. “Ship to Shore with Joseph Wambaugh: Still a Bit Paranoid Among the Palms.” Interview by Andy Meisler. The New York Times, June 13, 1996, p. C1. An interview with Wambaugh on his boat, Bookworm, near the San Diego harbor. The article explores some of Wambaugh’s views and gives a brief description of his career.