The New Centurions, 1970
The Blue Knight, 1972
The Choirboys, 1975
The Black Marble, 1978
The Glitter Dome, 1981
The Delta Star, 1983
The Secrets of Harry Bright, 1985
The Golden Orange, 1990
Fugitive Nights, 1992
Finnegan’s Week, 1993
The Onion Field, 1979 (adaptation of his book)
The Black Marble, 1980 (adaptation of his novel)
Echoes in the Darkness, 1987 (adaptation of his book)
The Onion Field, 1973
Lines and Shadows, 1983
Echoes in the Darkness, 1987
The Blooding, 1989
Fire Lover: A True Story, 2002
Joseph Wambaugh (WAHM-baw), in full Joseph Aloysius Wambaugh, Jr., was born into what he described as a family of “steelworkers, bar owners, and champion drinkers.” His father and mother, Anne Malloy Wambaugh, moved from Pennsylvania to California with their only child in 1951.
Three years later, Wambaugh joined the United States Marine Corps, serving until 1957. In the middle of his tour, he married Dee Allsup. They settled in Ontario, California, where Wambaugh worked in the Kaiser steel mill and attended college part-time. In 1958, he received an associate of arts degree in English literature from Chaffey College in Alta Loma, California. Two years later he was awarded his bachelor of arts from California State University, Los Angeles.
The year 1960 was a remarkable one in Wambaugh’s life. In addition to receiving his B.A., he entered into the career that would eventually have a huge impact on crime fiction and the true crime genre: He joined the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), wearing badge number 178.
Wambaugh told one interviewer that he loved his job as a cop, in part because he found that in a single night, he “sometimes learned things that a man could not expect to learn in a month or a year.” He continued his studies in night school, receiving his master’s degree in 1968. The Watts riot of 1965 may have been the major catalyst for Wambaugh’s writing about the rough streets of Los Angeles from the viewpoint of young policemen. His first efforts were short stories, all of which were rejected for publication. Finally, an Atlantic Monthly editor advised Wambaugh to try a novel. The result was The New Centurions.
While reviewers noted some typical first-novel faults, such as one-dimensional characterizations and clumsy exposition, they also praised the book for being exciting and readable. The first of Wambaugh’s novels, it became a best-seller. In a 1996 interview, Wambaugh said, “I was the first person, I think, to write a book about cops that was not a police procedural.” His insightful and complex characterizations of cops transformed a kind of pulp fiction into a more literary form of writing.
In 1973 Wambaugh published The Onion Field, a book frequently compared to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965). The Onion Field recounts the events surrounding the real-life kidnapping and murder of a police officer in an onion field outside Bakersfield, California. As in his first two books, Wambaugh lures the reader into the psyche of his cop characters. The Onion Field proved to be one his most popular works.
By this time, Wambaugh had risen to the rank of detective sergeant in the LAPD, working the burglary detail in the Hollenbeck Division. However, his increasing celebrity began to interfere with his police duties. He finally retired from the department on March 8, 1974, after fourteen years on the force.
Wambaugh began to work in television and film at about this time. Between 1973 to 1977, he served as creative consultant on two television series, NBC’s Police Story, and CBS’s The Blue Knight. In 1977, the film version of The Choirboys was released, without Wambaugh’s blessing. He wrote the initial screenplay, but when the studio revised the script and completely changed the ending, Wambaugh sued to have his name expunged from the credits. He won the suit. Other lawsuits and litigation surrounded Wambaugh’s nonfiction. He was sued for defamation of character by the cop protagonist of Lines and Shadows. One of the alleged villains of Echoes in the Darkness brought a suit against the author for violating his civil rights. An investigation into whether Wambaugh had access to privileged information was launched in England after the publication of The Blooding. Wambaugh spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting these cases and vowed never to write nonfiction again. Then, after the 1996 publication of Floaters, he announced that he was retiring altogether.
His retirement lasted six years, ending with the publication of another nonfiction book. In 2002, intrigued by the case of a California serial arsonist, Wambaugh wrote Fire Lover. It was his first book to center on a fire department rather than a police department. As he did with all of his true crime books, Wambaugh performed extensive research and careful interviews, enlisting the assistance of investigators who actually worked the case. In more than three decades of writing, Wambaugh received awards from the Mystery Writers of America and the International Association of Crime Writers. He is credited with influencing crime writers in the print, film, and television industries.