Wambaugh, Joseph 1937- (Joseph Aloysius Wambaugh, Jr.)

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Wambaugh, Joseph 1937- (Joseph Aloysius Wambaugh, Jr.)


Born January 22, 1937, in East Pittsburgh, PA; son of Joseph Aloysius (a police officer and steelworker) and Anne Wambaugh; married Dee Allsup, November 26, 1955; children: Mark (deceased), David, Jeannette. Education: Chaffey College, A.A., 1958; California State College (now University), Los Angeles, B.A., 1960, M.A., 1968. Religion: Roman Catholic.


Home—Rancho Mirage, CA.


Los Angeles Police Department, Los Angeles, CA, 1960-74, began as patrolman, became detective sergeant; full-time writer, 1974—. Creator and consultant, Police Story, National Broadcasting Company (NBC-TV), 1973-77, and The Blue Knight, Columbia Broadcasting Company (CBS-TV), 1975-76. Military service: U.S. Marine Corps, 1954-57.


Edgar Allan Poe Award for nonfiction, Mystery Writers of America, 1974, for The Onion Field, award for best motion picture, 1981, for The Black Marble, and award for best fact crime, 2003, for Fire Lover: A True Story; Rodolfo Walsh Prize for investigative journalism, International Association of Crime Writers, 1989, for Lines and Shadows; Grand Master Award, Mystery Writers of America, 2004.



The New Centurions, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1970.

The Blue Knight, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1972.

The Choirboys, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 1975.

The Black Marble, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 1978.

The Glitter Dome, Morrow (New York, NY), 1981.

Four Complete Novels (contains The Blue Knight, The Black Marble, The New Centurions, and The Choirboys), Avenel Books (New York, NY), 1982.

The Delta Star, Morrow (New York, NY), 1983.

The Secrets of Harry Bright, Morrow (New York, NY), 1985.

The Golden Orange, Morrow (New York, NY), 1990.

Fugitive Nights, Morrow (New York, NY), 1992.

Finnegan's Week, Morrow (New York, NY), 1993.

Floaters, Bantam (New York, NY), 1996.

Hollywood Station, Little, Brown (New York, NY), 2006


The Onion Field, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 1973.

Lines and Shadows, Morrow (New York, NY), 1984.

Echoes in the Darkness, Morrow (New York, NY), 1987.

The Blooding, Morrow (New York, NY), 1989.

Fire Lover: A True Story, Morrow (New York, NY), 2002.


The Onion Field (screenplay), Avco Embassy, 1979.

The Black Marble (screenplay), Avco Embassy, 1980.

The Glitter Dome (teleplay), Home Box Office, 1984.

Echoes in the Darkness (miniseries teleplay; first broadcast on CBS-TV, 1987), Morrow (New York, NY), 1987.

Fugitive Knights (teleplay), NBC-TV, 1993.


The New Centurions was adapted for film, directed by Richard Fleischer, and released by Columbia Pictures, 1972; The Blue Knight was produced by NBC-TV as a television miniseries starring William Holden, and then by CBS-TV as a regular series with George Kennedy in the title role, both 1973; The Choirboys was adapted for film, directed by Robert Aldrich, and released by Universal Studios, 1977; The Onion Field was adapted for film, directed by Harold Becker, and released by Avco Embassy in 1979; The Black Marble was adapted for film, directed by Harold Becker, and released by Avco Embassy, 1980; The Glitter Dome was adapted for cable television, directed by Stuart Margolin, and released in 1985; Fire Lover: A True Story was adapted for television and released by Home Box Office in 2002; Hollywood Station was optioned for adaptation into a television series, 2006.


Although Joseph Wambaugh spent ten years with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) before publishing his first novel, The New Centurions, he is more than just a cop-turned-writer, and his novels are much more than just "cop stories": they have effectively redefined the genre of police drama and the way police officers are depicted therein. Wambaugh's characters are police who are frightened, profane, violent, and fallible, forced to protect citizens who resent them. His ability to evoke sympathy for crude and often distasteful characters has made Wambaugh popular with both readers and critics. Indeed, Wambaugh's reputation as a powerful writer was established with his first four books: The New Centurions, The Blue Knight, The Onion Field, and The Choirboys. The first two were written while Wambaugh was still a full-time police officer, and though in retrospect he often dismisses them as his "moonlighting" novels, they instantly shattered the preconceptions many readers had of police. Published in 1970, The New Centurions follows four young men through the Police Academy, onto the streets of Los Angeles, and ultimately to the battlefield of the 1965 riots in Watts (a neighborhood in Los Angeles). Along the way, the reader witnesses how idealistic cadets become callous and distant, feeling that they have been cast—against their will—in the role of civilization's front line. John Greenway, writing in the National Review, hailed Wambaugh's first novel as "incomparably the best revelation of the lives and souls of policemen ever written."

Whereas The New Centurions depicts the beginnings of a police officer's career, The Blue Knight depicts the end. Its protagonist, Officer Bumper Morgan, spends his last three days on the force in much the same way he had spent the previous twenty years: accepting free meals, pressuring his "stoolies" (informants), taking liberties with certain obliging females, and occasionally making an arrest. David K. Jeffrey, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, described Morgan as "a fallible human being, fat, crude, and stubborn, [who] has been a cop for so long he now believes he is the law. He believes, too, that the legal system often corrupts and thwarts justice; he therefore ‘bends the law’ to ensure that criminals do not go unpunished." In the end, Morgan perjures himself during a trial to obtain conviction. The Blue Knight "is an effective study of the ways in which police work can corrupt and change policemen," Jeffrey continued.

Wambaugh's "moonlighting" novels did, in fact, create something of a stir, particularly in the offices of the LAPD. Wambaugh's superiors were not pleased that the young officer had written an inside view of their department, let alone one that featured officers who accepted gratuities and committed perjury. Pressure from superiors and his increasing celebrity forced Wambaugh to take an extended leave from the LAPD, during which time he researched and wrote what would become one of his most important works, the nonfiction book The Onion Field.

In 1963 two young Los Angeles policemen, officers Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger, pulled over a suspicious-looking car; the men inside, a pair of small-time criminals who had spent the evening robbing liquor stores, overpowered the policemen and drove them, at gunpoint, to a remote onion field, where Campbell was executed. Hettinger escaped, and the two men were apprehended the next day. Although they were soon brought to trial and convicted of murder, the introduction of the Escobedo and Miranda laws (designed to protect the rights of criminals) delayed their execution; the ensuing appeals and retrials dragged on for seven years, making theirs the longest criminal proceeding in California history at that time. During that period, Hettinger suffered a nervous breakdown, became suicidal, and was thrown off the force for shoplifting. He finally became a farmer, working just a few miles from that same onion field.

Wambaugh transformed the story of officers Campbell and Hettinger into his 1974 book, The Onion Field. It was his first work of nonfiction, based entirely on interviews, case records, and some 45,000 pages of court transcriptions. An officer during the time of the murder, Wambaugh often cites the Hettinger case as his motivation for becoming a writer. He explained in Playboy: "I feel I was put on earth to write this story, and I've never had that feeling before or since. Nothing could ever stop me from writing The Onion Field. I felt it was my sole reason for living, and that no one else understood or knew the ramifications of the onion-field murder." Jeffrey, quoting Wambaugh, explained: "Policemen believe that ‘no man-caused calamity hap- pens by chance, that there is always a step that should have been taken, would have been taken if the [officer] had been alert, cautious, brave, aggressive—in short, if he'd been like a prototype policeman.’ By this measure, Hettinger was a failure who shared responsibility for the murder of Campbell just as surely as did" the murderers.

It was after the publication of The Onion Field that Wambaugh resigned from the police force, citing as reasons the constant phone calls and visitations to the station by interviewers and fans. "Yet, if his resignation saddened him personally, it also seems to have had a liberating effect on his writing," observed Jeffrey. Beyond the reach of superior officers, Wambaugh set out, in 1975, to write his "truest" police novel yet.

"Very little in Wambaugh's first two novels prepares one for the scabrous humor and ferocity of The Choirboys," noted John Leonard of Wambaugh's third novel in the New York Times Book Review. According to a reviewer in Atlantic Monthly: "Mr. Wambaugh appears to have thrown into this novel 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."

The Choirboys is the story of ten Los Angeles police officers who alleviate the pain and stress of their job through a ritual called "choir practice"—debaucherous after-hours meetings in MacArthur Park, filled with aimless violence and alcoholic howling. Jeffrey explained: "The manic hilarity and drunkenness at their meetings serve the choirboys as defense mechanism against full consciousness of the fact that the ordinary people they protect are, by and large, barbaric savages, capable of any horror." The tone of The Choirboys is dark and satiric, told in a series of comic, yet ominous, vignettes. In this way, Wambaugh's novel has been compared to Joseph Heller's Catch-22.

In retrospect, Wambaugh often describes the writing of The Choirboys as the turning point in his career. The novels that followed—among them The Black Marble, The Glitter Dome, and The Golden Orange—have maintained the gallows humor established in The Choirboys. In Finnegan's Week Wambaugh portrays two main characters: Finbar Finnegan, a San Diego detective who is in pursuit of a stolen fifty-five-gallon container of a lethal substance called guthion, and "Bad Dog," a female police detective who is attempting to solve the theft of two thousand pairs of shoes from a Navy warehouse. Noting that the two unusual crimes are found to be related, Cassandra Smith observed in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that "Wambaugh uses his talent to entangle his characters in a farcical web of circumstances." Reviewers have also emphasized Wambaugh's explosive style in the novel. For example, Jack Olsen commented in the New York Times Book Review that Wambaugh "punches up his text with italics, exclamation points and other typographic firecrackers…. And yet it works."

Wambaugh's subsequent novel, Floaters, depicts the attempt of San Diego police detectives to solve a murder that takes place against the backdrop of the America's Cup sailing competition. Reviewers noted that two plots are interwoven to heighten the novel's suspense, the first being the scheme of Ambrose Lutterworth, Jr., the keeper of the cup, to sabotage New Zealand's entry in the race. Lutterworth solicits the help of a prostitute, Blaze Duvall, in carrying out his plan, but Blaze mysteriously disappears after her call-girl friend Dawn Coyote is found dead. Critics emphasized Wambaugh's characteristically raw language and energetic style in portraying the efforts of two police officers, Fortney and Leeds, to solve the double mystery.

Reviewers have also continued to praise Wambaugh's later nonfiction works, which include Lines and Shadows, Echoes in the Darkness, The Blooding, and Fire Lover: A True Story. Whether examining the chaotic relations between the police and illegal aliens along the California-Mexico border, as he does in Lines and Shadows, or tracing the search for a brutal killer, as in The Blooding, Wambaugh has proven his ability to create suspense and drama with accounts of actual events. Although some critics suggest that Wambaugh excels more in writing fiction rather than nonfiction, many agree that Wambaugh's nonfiction are absorbing. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Walter Walker called The Blooding "a well-written, meticulously researched, nontechnical tour de force," and Washington Post Book World contributor Douglas E. Winter hailed it as "a blessed respite from the lubricious leers of the tabloid school of crime journalism."

With Fire Lover, Wambaugh turned to firefighters rather than police officers for inspiration. He wrote the nonfiction account of the case of a Glendale, California, arson investigator and fire captain named John Leonard Orr—who is now serving a life sentence for arson—after a six-year break from writing at age sixty-five. Wambaugh told Adam Dunn in Book that before he discovered the Orr case he thought he was "retired, or just tired." The author was vaguely familiar with some of the arson cases for which Orr was convicted, but when a fan sent him a tape of a public television show called Nova, about the bizarre serial arsons, Wambaugh began research on the case in earnest. He was assisted by Mike Matassa of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, who had helped to solve the Orr case, which was being tried in court as Wambaugh researched it. One of the most fascinating aspects of the case was that Orr—labeled the most prolific arsonist of the twentieth century by the U.S. government and responsible for many deaths—had written an unpublished, reportedly fact-based novel about a serial arsonist who gained sexual pleasure from starting fires. Orr was discovered as the Glendale arsonist after his fingerprint was found at the site of a thwarted fire in 1991.

Mary Frances Wilkens wrote in Booklist that "Wambaugh's painstaking research, which included interviews with law-enforcement officers, survivors, and victims' families, is astonishing." Dunn concluded, "Wambaugh says that serial arsonists are among the least understood of all serial offenders…. But after decades of exposing the inside of police departments, he has now succeeded in shedding light on the equally complex world of fire fighters and fire investigators." A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that Wambaugh's fans would not be disappointed by his departure from police stories because "sparks fly throughout this potent probe."

A full ten years after the publication of Floaters, Wambaugh returned to publishing fiction with the novel Hollywood Station. Not just a welcome event but a "comeback book," as Guardian Online critic Mark Lawson put it, the book presents intertwined stories relating around a common theme: how police work has changed now that drug addicts must be dealt with in the more sensitive, politically correct atmosphere of the new millennium. In this way, noted Connie Fletcher, writing in Booklist, Hollywood Station serves as "both a celebration of street cops and an elegy for the old LAPD, now hobbled by post-Rodney King federal receivership [and] Draconian PC codes."

Hollywood Station further distinguishes itself by its relative lack of a plotline, according to David J. Montgomery in the Chicago Sun-Times Online. "The story arc, to the extent that it has one, is slim at best, involving a drug addict in way over his head with a Russian crime boss who is only slightly less incompetent than the junkie." But Montgomery concluded that the plot "is just a minimal framework on which to hang the characters and their stories. And when the characters are this real, and their lives this fascinating, it hardly seems to matter." Other reviewers joined Montgomery in hailing the author's return to fiction. "It's a serious pleasure to have Joseph Wambaugh back," said Marilyn Stasio in the New York Times Online. Stasio felt that Hollywood Station, with its delicate balance of the grisly and the comic, "has all the authority, outrage, compassion and humor of the [author's] great early novels."

Wambaugh's books have not only been popular with readers and critics, but have also been popular with filmmakers and television producers. Seven of his books, including Fire Lover, have been adapted for either film or television. Before the release of The New Centurions, The Blue Knight, and the highly praised television series Police Story (for which Wambaugh wrote and consulted), law enforcement officers were usually presented as cool and cerebral, like Dragnet protagonist Joe Friday, or as fearless superhero-detectives, like The Untouchables character Elliot Ness, who crash into a villain's hideout with both guns blazing.

Indeed, Wambaugh's willingness and ability to display police as human has earned his work a special place in American literature. Greenway acknowledged that "Joseph Wambaugh's narrative revelations of that most misunderstood of all professions are absolutely required reading for anyone hoping to know humanity in its naked reality."



Authors in the News, Volume 1, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1976.

Bestsellers 89, Issue 3, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 3, 1975, Volume 18, 1981.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 6: American Novelists since World War II, Second Series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.

Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1983, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1984.

Van Dover, J. Kenneth, Centurions, Knights, and Other Cops: The Police Novels of Joseph Wambaugh, Brownstone Books, 1995.


Atlantic Monthly, November, 1975, review of The Choirboys, p. 124.

Book, May-June 2002, Adam Dunn, "Joseph Wambaugh: Burning Down the House," review of Fire Lover: A True Story, p. 19.

Booklist, April 1, 2002, Mary Frances Wilkens, review of Fire Lover, p. 1282; September 1, 2006, Connie Fletcher, review of Hollywood Station, p. 8.

Entertainment Weekly, December 1, 2006, Thom Geier, review of Hollywood Station, p. 91.

Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2006, review of Hollywood Station, p. 874.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 26, 1993, Cassandra Smith, review of Finnegan's Week, p. 7.

New York Times, September 7, 1973, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of The Onion Field, p. 33.

New York Times Book Review, November 2, 1975, John Leonard, review of The Choirboys, p. 6; February 19, 1989, Walter Walker, review of The Blooding; October 17, 1993, Jack Olsen, review of Finnegan's Week, p. 38.

Playboy, July, 1979, p. 69, author interview.

Publishers Weekly, April 22, 2002, review of Fire Lover, p. 64; September 25, 2006, review of Hollywood Station, p. 43.

Washington Post Book World, March 19, 1989, Douglas E. Winter, review of The Blooding.


Chicago Sun-Times Online,http://www.suntimes.com/ (December 24, 2006), David J. Montgomery, review of Hollywood Station.

Guardian Online,http://books.guardian.co.uk/ (January 6, 2007), Mark Lawson, review of Hollywood Station.

New York Times Online,http://www.nytimes.com/ (December 10, 2006), Marilyn Stasio, review of Hollywood Station.