Paul Davis interviews Joseph Wambaugh on the occasion of Wambaugh’s latest novel, Hollywood Crows, and their talk is studded with great nuggets. Wambaugh, as you may recall, was one of the first novelists to write about police work frorm the inside — his first novel, The New Centurions (1971), was published while he was still a detective with the Los Angeles police force — and he was startlingly frank about the sordid outrageousness of big-city police work, and the equally outrageous black humor cops develop to cope with it. That makes him interesting enough, but Wambaugh is also a heroic figure for all writers in his early dealings with the movie industry: after his 1975 novel The Choirboys was given a crappy adaptation, Wambaugh self-financed his own film version of The Onion Field, his heartbreaking 1973 nonfiction account of a cop-killing and the grueling trial that followed. That movie, released in 1979, gave breakout roles to James Woods, John Savage and Ted Danson, and remains one of the best true-crime narratives set to film. Someday I’d like to check out Police Story, the short-lived anthology series Wambaugh created in the Seventies: I was a mere tyke when it came out, but I remember “The Wyatt Earp Syndrome” and its portrait of a cop who lets runaway machismo destroy his marriage.
I’m happy to see that Wambaugh likes The Wire, my most favorite TV cop show ever:
Davis: What I liked on The Wire was that we saw a reversal of what one normally sees on TV cop shows. You always saw cops and feds fighting over jurisdiction on most shows. “Back off, this is my case.” On The Wire after a dozen Eastern European girls were found dead in a shipping container, we saw the police agencies fight over not having jurisdiction. The Baltimore homicide chief spoke of his stats going up 12 per cent if they were stuck with the case. I got a kick out of that.
Wambaugh: That was my experience when I was a detective. We were always trying to give away jurisdiction. When the LAPD caught bank robbers, for instance, they would do the fun work – kicking down the door and catching the guys – and then for all the paperwork and the prosecution, the LAPD was only too glad to turn it over to the feds. Let the FBI handle all of that. And then the FBI would take the credit.
This brief exchange really rang a bell for me:
Davis: What kind of man or woman do you think becomes a police officer today? Is there a common dominator?
Wambaugh: I don’t think so. Norman Mailer had a few theories on that, but he was full of bullshit. Someone has to have a bit of assertiveness in their personality, I would think. I’m thinking of women in particular. There has to be a little something there, thinking they can go out and get in somebody’s face and do the job.
True true true. One of the reasons I loved reporting crime and courts was talking to cops. Police always surprised me. There was never a cookie-cutter thing going with them. I remember dropping in on a detective once to talk about an investigation and once the business part of the conversation was over, I discovered completely by accident that he was a bit of a fantasy geek. We ended up chatting about Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber and Clark Ashton Smith.
I admire Wambaugh’s early books much the way I admire police in general, but his greatest strength as a writer — his intimate, hard-earned intimacy with the police mindset — is also his greatest limitation. He can show you the way cops think, but he’s unable to stray beyond that — at least, that was the case in early works like The Blue Knight, The New Centurions and The Choirboys. I trust Wambaugh completely when he describes how it felt to be a cop dealing with the race riots of the Sixties, but he’s not the guy to read if you want to get the other viewpoint — the despair and rage that fueled those riots.
For my money, Wambaugh’s last great one was Lines and Shadows, a nonfiction book about a border patrol unit created not to stop illegal immigrants but to protect them from the predators waiting to rob, rape and/or murder them as they came across the southern border. After that, I thought his novels went wobbly, and the true-crime titles never really grabbed me. Maybe it’s time to give him another look. (Hat tip: Frank Wilson.)