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Absurdism in the Works of Joseph Wambaugh

April 26, 2011

Joseph Wambaugh

James Ellroy once described police officer turned novelist Joseph Wambaugh as ‘a right-wing absurdist and how many right-wing absurdists have you run into?’ Wambaugh’s novels may not be as overtly absurd (or as critically acclaimed) as the work of Paul Auster or James Sallis, but his stories certainly contain many bizarre moments. Wambaugh was in the Marine Corps from 1954 to 1957 and joined the LAPD in 1960, so from personal experience he learned how rigidly structured, discipline-driven state institutions work. Wambaugh had ten years experience in the LAPD when his debut novel The New Centurions (1970) was released. The novel charts the first five years in the careers of three very different policemen and contains faint elements of what would later make Wambaugh’s work so controversial and gripping, such as the portrayal of police work being encumbered by the suspicion that  judges, lawyers, social workers and citizen activists had of the police. While some would view suspicion as vital for maintaining police accountability, in The New Centurions it is portrayed merely as farcical. But Wambaugh is not wholly uncritical of the LAPD: the novel aroused controversy when LAPD Police Chief Ed Davis tried to get alterations made to the manuscript as it detailed the ‘Policeman’s Discount’, wherein police officers could get free meals, cigarettes and liquor at local stops throughout the city. Both Wambaugh and the publishers refused to back down and the manuscript went unchanged. Perhaps this was the beginning of the end of Wambaugh’s police career, as he would resign from the LAPD four years later on account that his literary celebrity was interfering with his police work. With his resignation, however, his portrayal of police work became  increasingly cynical. Whereas The New Centurions displayed a certain degree of police idealism that gradually declined as individuals became hardened over the years, in Wambaugh’s most famous novel The Choirboys (1975) all idealism seems to have disappeared from the outset and policemen are more concerned with pursuing hedonistic pleasures than upholding the law. Gradually Wambaugh blurred the line between the police station being symbolic of a disciplined state institution and the society it is meant to oversee, which had suffered a complete collapse of laws and values. But if critics thought they would be able to pin down Wambaugh merely as a police or crime writer, he would continue to defy them. In the late 1980’s Wambaugh moved from LA to San Diego, and his novel settings also shifted locations. From that point Wambaugh’s police did not have to contend with the hellish urban problems of LA but with their own boredom in the suburban bliss of San Diego and uber-rich Palm Springs. Later works moved away from black comedy to more outre farce, and the main text was often preceded by quirky character synopses, such as this one from The Secrets of Harry Bright (1985):

SGT. SIDNEY “BLACK SID” BLACKPOOL – an L.A.P.D. homicide detective with a staggering Johnny Walker habit. Involved in a dead-end murder investigation that strikes closer to home than he can bear.

Aside from the abrupt changes in writing style, Wambaugh has also mastered seamless transitions between fiction and factual work and back again. Inspired by  Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965), Wambaugh became if not the most distinguished practitioner of the non-fiction novel then certainly the most prolific and diverse. Wambaugh knew Capote personally, and In Cold Blood was a significant influence on Wambaugh’s first non-fiction work The Onion Field (1973), an account of the kidnapping and murder of LAPD officer Ian James Campbell by two criminals. The Onion Field plays to Wambaugh’s greatest strengths as a writer: it is heart-poundingly tense when fellow policeman Karl Hettinger is escaping from the two killers who have just murdered his partner, and it is also scathingly critical of the absurdities of the legal system which prolonged the subsequent trial for several years. In the true crime genre, controversy is never far behind, and Wambaugh’s career is no exception. Wambaugh’s Echoes in the Darkness (1987) deals with the murder of Susan Reinert and her two children and the subsequent trial and conviction for the crimes of Jay C. Smith who was Principal of Upper Merion Area High School in Pennsylvania where Ms. Reinert worked as an English teacher. Wambaugh allegedly paid police investigators on the case $50,000 on the condition that Smith be arrested. Without an arrest and a conviction in the case they are portraying, true crime authors are often denied a contract by publishers and Wambaugh later admitted, ‘I didn’t think the book would work until something happened to Smith’ (Capote was faced with a similar problem waiting for the two killers to be executed when he was writing In Cold Blood). Smith was found guilty and sentenced to death. After spending six years on Death Row, his conviction was overturned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for prosecutorial misconduct. The controversy surrounding Echoes in the Darkness is a murky affair from which Wambaugh emerges with little credit.

Wambaugh had previously handled another true crime case with sound judgement. In the late 1970’s Wambaugh was contacted by convicted killer Jeffrey MacDonald. MacDonald was a former Army medical doctor convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and two daughters. MacDonald protested his innocence (and still does to this day) and wanted Wambaugh to write his story. Wambaugh declined MacDonald’s offer and wrote back to him:

You should understand that I would not think of writing your story. It would be my story. Just as The Onion Field was my story and In Cold Blood is Capote’s story.

True crime authors have their own concept of narrative which may not always conform to how things actually happened or how the subjects of the books see things. MacDonald was almost certainly not innocent as his defence was flimsy (although some commentators have their doubts that he’s the killer), and Wambaugh didn’t want to be put in a position of defending him in print. This refusal proved especially prophetic as the writer Joe McGuinness, who eventually agreed to write MacDonald’s story, depicted MacDonald unfavourably as a lurid and pitiful psychopath in the bestselling true crime book Fatal Vision (1984). Subsequently, when MacDonald sued McGuinness, it was found that the author had feigned deep sympathy with the convicted killer during research for the book, even writing letters saying his conviction was unjust and condoning his adultery.

When Wambaugh returned to fiction with his Hollywood Station series of novels, it might have seemed at first like he was looking to avoid controversy, but he used the novel format to once again to defend his conservative views on law and order, as the series is highly critical of restrictions placed upon the LAPD in the aftermath of the Rampart scandal. Now in his seventh decade with almost two dozen books to his name, Wambaugh has still not achieved the critical distinction which has been bestowed upon some of his fellow crime writers, but his books stands as unique, and at turns surreal and bizarre, portrayals of police work. And although Wambaugh is cynical about many aspects of the justice system, his moving depiction of weary policemen forced to operate in a fallen, absurdist world has always struck me as making them appear more heroic and admirable than a more idealised portrayal ever would.

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