Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Joseph Wambaugh, Master of the Police Procedural

A former detective sergeant in the Los Angeles Police Department, Joseph Wambaugh is considered the master of the police procedural. In fact, in 2004, he was named Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. He has written numerous best-selling novels and nonfiction, including The Onion Field.

I read several of his early books, including the nonfiction, The Onion Field, but have to admit I have not taken time to read many his later ones.

On his website under his first book, The New Centurions, he has these words:

“The New Centurions is fiction, but everything in it is real.
The New Centurions: a novel about policemen by a policeman. Tough, but compassionate, it’ll make you understand--perhaps for the first time--what it’s really like to be a cop.”

That was in 1971 when I read The New Centurions and at that time I was happily married to a Southern California cop, raising our family. And because I was a cop’s wife, I found the book to be upsetting despite the fact the work was one of fiction—and well written. Too much of it was too real and threatening to a young cop’s young wife. It was like a disturbing look behind the scenes of what often went on in a cop’s life, and what happened on the streets of Los Angeles. Down and dirty, dark and ugly, dangerous and risky. Just the sort of things you want to think about every time your husband puts on his uniform, his gun belt and badge, and goes to work, day shift, or night shift, and sometimes a different shift nearly daily, and all the while you tend to your young children, pretending that all is really going to be okay. I had been a cop’s wife for about six years at that point. He became a reserve police officer in our third year of marriage and then a full time officer two years later. He was a patrolman, a detective, a Lieutenant, a Captain, and retired out after nearly 30 years. Also at times he was Acting Chief. We had been divorced a few years before his retirement after 25 years of marriage.

I had enough exposure to the police life in a small Southern California department only miles away from Los Angeles, that I often did not like what I saw happening with the officers and their families. A lot of marriages within the department were falling apart. For some, drinking became a problem, and for others, job stress led to emotional problems, including abuse.

But all of what I did experience during those early years of my first marriage actually gave me some great "fictional" material to use in my writing. I know when my late husband, Don Pendleton and I wrote Roulette, (a story about husband and wife cops in Southern California who are faced with a serial killer invading their community) some of my “cop” knowledge was invaluable and I believe those years were also helpful in writing Shattered Lens with my PI character, Catherine Winter, set in Los Angeles and Hollywood. I’m currently working on a second Catherine Winter novel.

So possibly you can understand how the “reality” of Joseph Wambaugh’s books could be a little unsettling to any police wife. Living in Southern California, already having the Watts Riot and a few other similar situations that happened in our “neighborhood,” it only re-enforced the reality of Wambaugh’s writing, the reality of a cop’s life on the streets, and even the political influences that had to be dealt with. I wanted to read Wambaugh’s books, but then again, a part of me did not.

Those early books, The New Centurions, The Blue Knight, The Choir Boys, and others, were discussed heavily among our social group of cops and wives. From what I recall, the wives thought a little differently about the stories than the men did. I say men, because at that time I believe we only had one police woman, a detective, on the department. Any other females within the department were civilian employees, such as dispatchers or secretaries.

Wambaugh refers to his books as police dramas. That they are. His latest books are a trilogy: Hollywood Station, Hollywood Crows, and Hollywood Moon.

Watch an inteview of Joseph Wambaugh by Keith Rawson, December 10th, 2009


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