"The Onion Field, that one got pretty close to me because I was a cop when it happened. I saw some of the indifference that my police department showed to the surviving officer." -- Joseph Wambaugh
Joseph Aloysius Wambaugh, Jr. (born January 22, 1937, in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) is a bestselling American writer known for his fictional and non-fictional accounts of police work in the United States. Several of his first novels were set in Los Angeles, California, and the surrounding area, and featured Los Angeles police officers as protagonists.
"As a cop, I dealt with every kind of bum and criminal. They all have more integrity than some Hollywood people.""Civil servants take forever to do anything.""Every time I write a nonfiction book I get sued.""I certainly believe it's over for the jury system, but we won't admit it for a while.""I enjoy adapting my own work, or anybody's work. I like to adapt books.""I enjoy doing the research of nonfiction; that gives me some pleasure, being a detective again.""I hadn't done anything in six years; I was just vegetating.""I'm sure I took some licks at the system, and at trials and lawyers in general. I've seen enough of them for so many years both as a cop and a defendant in defamation cases.""If you take 67 brush fires times 10 years, that's almost 700 right there. Those brush fires are incredibly dangerous, all those homes going down proved that.""Jury selection is strictly an emotional process. They're looking for people they can manipulate. Both sides are.""No one I know of has ever had this experience-where you had to sit and wait and wait for a DNA test to come back just so you can write the last page of the book.""Probably 95 percent of the things that are written never get on the screen.""The O.J. Simpson case, they had no understanding of that DNA evidence, and didn't want to.""The Onion Field made a real writer. And then I knew it was over, I couldn't be a cop anymore.""The serial arsonist is the most difficult to apprehend because the evidence is burned up.""The time has come for professional jurors.""Today, lawyers are attacking more; they're attacking everything. A good example is the O.J. Simpson case.""What I didn't know was that if I didn't stand with my back to the wall, Hollywood people would unscrew my ass and sell it down the river.""What is it about the component of fire? People have written about it. People have wondered about it.""When I interview people accused of capital offenses, I never even ask if they did it. I would consider that unprofessional.""When I wrote The Onion Field, I realized that my first two novels were just practice.""You've got people who are looking at DNA evidence and other evidence like that and they're ignoring it."
Wambaugh received an Associate's degree from Chaffey College and joined the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in 1960. He served 14 years, rising through the ranks from patrolman to detective sergeant. He also attended California State University, Los Angeles, where he earned Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees.
Wambaugh's unique perspective on police work led to his first novel, The New Centurions, which was published early in 1971 to critical acclaim and popular success. The success of the early books happened while Wambaugh was still working in the detective division. He reportedly remarked, "I would have guys in handcuffs asking me for autographs."
Soon turning to writing full time, Wambaugh was prolific and popular starting in the 1970s. He mixed writing novels (The Blue Knight, The Choirboys, The Black Marble) with nonfiction accounts of crime and detection, a.k.a. "true crime": The Onion Field. Later books included The Glitter Dome (a TV-movie adaptation starred James Garner and John Lithgow), The Delta Star, and Lines and Shadows.
In contrast to conventionally heroic fictional policemen, Wambaugh brought a gritty texture to his flawed police characters. Beginning with The Choirboys, Wambaugh changed his approach and began to use dark humor and outrageous incidents to emphasize the psychological peril inherent in modern urban police work. Many characters are referenced by often unflattering nicknames rather than given names, while other characters are given whimsical names to paint an immediate word portrait for the reader. Wambaugh became sharply critical of the command structure of the LAPD and individuals within it, and later, of the city government as well.
Beginning with The Black Marble in 1977, Wambaugh devoted at least half of a narrative to satirical, often biting, observations of the mores and extravagances of the Southern California "rich and famous" lifestyle. The Black Marble parodied dog shows and the fading lifestyle of "old" Pasadena, but not entirely unsympathetically. The Glitter Dome explored the pornographic film industry, The Delta Star delved into the politics and intrigue of the Nobel Prize and scientific research, and The Secrets of Harry Bright savaged the Palm Springs lifestyle of wealthy people with second homes, inclinations to drugs and drinking, and restricted country clubs. With The Golden Orange, set in Orange County; Finnegan's Week, set in San Diego; and Floaters, set in San Diego within the events of the America's Cup yacht racing, Wambaugh broadened the scope of his observations. He was a sharp observer of locations where he lived as a current celebrity himself.
In 1992, Wambaugh generated controversy with his nonfiction book, Echoes in the Darkness, based on the murder of Susan Reinert, a teacher in the Upper Merion School District in suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Critics alleged that the author paid prosecutors in the trial of principal Jay C. Smith to funnel information to him before an arrest was made. Jay Smith Smith's conviction was overturned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on the grounds that the prosecution hid the existence of sand that could have supported Smith's case. Smith sued for release, but lost after a federal appeals court concluded that, despite his release, evidence of his guilt remained overwhelming. Jay C. Smith was eventually vindicated when William Bradfield, another teacher at Upper Merion, was charged and convicted of the murder. The shadow of unethical behavior still hangs over Wambaugh.
One of Wambaugh's most famous nonfiction books is The Blooding, which tells the story behind an early landmark case in which DNA fingerprinting helped solve two murders in Leicester, England. The DNA evidence resulted in the arrest and conviction of Colin Pitchfork.
In 2003, Fire Lover: A True Story, brought Wambaugh his second Edgar Award, for Best Crime Fact book. In 2004 he received an MWA Grand Master Award.
In 2006, he returned to fiction with the publication of Hollywood Station, his first book depicting life in the LAPD since The Delta Star (1983). Hollywood Station was highly critical of conditions caused by the federal consent decree under which the LAPD had to operate after the Rampart scandal. In 2008 he followed it with Hollywood Crows, his first sequel, which featured many of the same characters. A third related novel, Hollywood Moon, followed in 2009.
In the 2000s, Wambaugh also began teaching screenwriting courses as a guest lecturer for the theater department at the University of California San Diego.
Many of his books were made into feature films or TV-movies during the 1970s and '80s. The Blue Knight, a novel following the approaching retirement and last working days of aging veteran beat cop "Bumper" Morgan, was made into an Emmy-winning 1973 TV miniseries starring William Holden. It was also adapted as a short-lived TV series starring George Kennedy. Wambaugh's realistic approach to police drama was highly influential in both film and television depictions (such as Hill Street Blues) from the mid-70s onward.
Wambaugh was also involved with creating/developing the NBC series Police Story, which ran from 1973 to 1977. The anthology show covered the different aspects of police work (patrol, detective, undercover, etc.) in the LAPD with story ideas and characters supposedly inspired by off-the-record talks with actual police officers. At times, the show's characters also dealt with problems not usually seen or associated with typical TV cop shows, such as alcohol abuse, adultery and brutality. The show had a brief revival on ABC during the 1988-1989 season.
Wambaugh was also involved in the production of the acclaimed film versions of The Onion Field (1979) and The Black Marble (1980), both directed by Harold Becker. In 1981, he won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for his screenplay for the latter film. This was after The Choirboys film adaptation had met with poor critical and audience reception a few years earlier. Interestingly, all three films featured performances by up-and-coming actor James Woods.