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An Interview with Joseph Wambaugh

January 15, 2019

Joseph Wambaugh at the 2010 LA Times Festival of Books. Photograph by Mark Coggins

Joseph Wambaugh is one of the most important American crime writers of the past fifty years. While serving as a police officer in the LAPD, Wambaugh began writing about the everyday lives of policemen and women. His first two novels The New Centurions (1971) and The Blue Knight (1972) were instant successes which did much to strip away the myths about police work found in scores of fanciful crime novels/TV shows (some of which were essentially LAPD propaganda, like Dragnet). Wambaugh’s cops are tough and street-smart but they are also harassed, worn down, living with constant pressure and struggling with failing marriages all brought on by the repetitive drudgery and bureaucratic nature of police work. That said, he captures the gallows humour and camaraderie of policemen as only a true copper could. For the average police officer, the pay is poor; political activists regard them as villains; and you never know if an average working day will turn violent. Despite this people are still drawn to the LAPD in order ‘to protect and to serve’ their community, even if it might leave them with a jaundiced view of their fellow human being.

Wambaugh eventually resigned from the LAPD when his literary fame was beginning to interfere with the job. His writing style has consistently developed over the years with five non-fiction books covering landmark police cases, beginning with the superlative The Onion Field (1973). Later novels took on a more satirical or absurdly comical edge (at least in my view, see below). There have been numerous film and TV adaptations of his books over the years, and more recently he developed his first novel series beginning with Hollywood Station in 2006, which features a cast of police characters covering the Hollyweird beat.

I was delighted when Joseph Wambaugh agreed to an interview with me. A single conversation cannot cover all of the books of Wambaugh’s writing career, but I’m satisfied we managed to cover the main texts. The following exchange took place by email.

Interviewer: Few crime writers have as much inside knowledge of police work as you do. How did this inform your approach to writing and how you viewed other crime writers at the start of your writing career?

Wambaugh: I had a very busy life before the start of my writing career. I had served three years in the USMC, marrying my high school sweetheart at the age of 18 while a Marine, later worked a year in a steel mill, all the while taking night or day college classes on a full or part-time basis with money from the GI Bill and California Veteran’s Bill. I had my BA degree in literature before joining the LAPD in 1960 at the age of 23.  The “closet” writing did not start until I was promoted to sergeant seven years later and by that time had two children. So I simply never had the time to do much reading of other crime writers, therefore,  I didn’t “view” them at all.  I just relied on my own police experience.

Interviewer: Your early novels The New Centurions, The Blue Knight and The Choirboys are both riotously funny but also melancholy and profound. What is it about a police officer’s role that lends itself well to both comedy and tragedy, and do you think conditions have got better or worse for the police since you left the LAPD?

Wambaugh: I had always loved war novels that combined comedy and tragedy,  books that were funny and melancholy, like Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five. I thought that police work was the perfect job in which to indulge that approach to a novel. For example, The Oracle, a sergeant in Hollywood Station, tells his coppers that doing good police work is the most fun they will ever have in their entire lives. I have always believed that, and yet, last year more American cops died by suicide than were killed in the line of duty. Death by one’s own hand was always lurking in a job where young men and women see the worst of people and ordinary people at their worst and become prematurely cynical as a result. The Choirboys captured all that, I think. As to conditions getting worse, yes they have. More U.S. cops were shot to death on duty last year than died in car crashes or in any other way.

Interviewer: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was a massively influential text on the crime genre when it was published. Capote endorsed The Onion Field in print, and you paid ‘tribute’ to him on the Dean Martin Celebrity Roast. Could you tell us a little more about your friendship with Capote and how he inspired your writing?

Wambaugh: I met Truman Capote on the Tonight Show which starred Johnny Carson.  Truman and my wife, Dee, chatted in the “green room” while I was in makeup or onstage and he invited us to his Palm Springs home. Even though I lived for most of my life only a two-hour drive from Palm Springs I had never been there and neither had Dee. We visited Truman one summer afternoon where his house guest included a bartender from a famous New York saloon whose names escapes me at the moment. Dee was given a screwdriver and got very sleepy. Truman suggested it was the intense desert heat of the day and led her to his bedroom where she could lie down. While she was there I told Truman and his bartender friend the story of The Onion Field that I was thinking about researching and writing. When I was finished he said, “I would love to write that story.”  When Truman said that, I knew I would do it. To this day, Dee claims that Truman Capote “slipped her a mickey” so he could be alone “with her cute young cop.” We saw him occasionally over the years at dinner or at parties he gave and he was wonderful to us, and he thrilled me by his jacket quote when The Onion Field was published. Dee also claims that she is probably the only woman to have slept in Truman Capote’s bed.

Interviewer: You have written five non-fiction books some of which cover investigations and trials which lasted for years. How do you go about the enormous research needed for books of this kind?

Wambaugh: I do research partly the way a police detective works on a crime and partly the way a psychotherapist works with patients. The research is mostly just very hard work and having the discipline to do it. And another hard part is not letting personal biases taint the story that is finally told. No matter how I felt personally about The Onion Field killers of an LAPD officer, I gave them their point of view and told their story in their words as they told it and lived it. Neither killer complained about his portrayal except that Gregory Powell thought he was more physically attractive than I depicted him in the book, or that James Woods later portrayed him in the movie.

Gregory Powell

 

 

 

 

 

 

james woods

James Woods as Gregory Powell in the film adaptation of The Onion Field

Interviewer: One of my favourite books of yours is The Blooding as it is set in England and deals with a landmark case involving the first use of genetic fingerprinting in a police investigation. How did you find police investigations over here differed from your time in the LAPD?

Wambaugh: When I first read about the new discovery of “genetic fingerprinting” at Leicester University I realized that it could become as important in crime detection as inked fingerprinting was at the dawn of the 20th century. I contacted the Leicestershire Constabulary and was thrilled to learn that not a single British writer had approached them or seemed interested in writing a book about the case. I was on an airplane within a week. The police officers involved in the case all knew who I was and treated me like one of them. Coppers are coppers the world over, I suspect. Their methods were the same as ours in the U.S. except that they had this exciting new discovery with which to do the massive job of blood-testing every young man in a three village area in order to find a DNA match for the serial killer of two young girls.

Interviewer: Your later novels such as The Secrets of Harry Bright and Finnegan’s Week took on a more satirical edge. What brought about this stylistic change to your writing?

Wambaugh: I never thought my later books are more satirical, but if they are, it is probably the aging process and the fact that I needed a somewhat newer direction to keep my interest honed.

Interviewer: You’re somewhat unique among crime writers in not developing an ongoing series of novels until late in your career. Why did you decide to write the Hollywood Station series?

Wambaugh: I did not intend to finally write a series of novels, but after I finished Hollywood Station, I had so much research material left that I just had to do a follow-up.  And then another, and finally I had five books. I interview 50 or 60 cops as well as other people before I ever start a police novel.

Semper cop,

Joseph Wambaugh

 

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