Classics of Crime Fiction: Joseph Wambaugh
This series of articles is made up of short text deliberately. I will soon include more modern writers, but like the brief summary of Ed McBain I am steeped in nostalgia when it comes to crime fiction. Joseph Wambaugh is an ex cop who wrote some blockbuster stuff in the 1970s and then went on solidly for years.
This was a time of mass novel consumption and a time before there was any skewed political element to police procedural tales. Wambaugh used his inside knowledge and gritty style to give Hill Street Blues type life to the page.
Some of the things that turn me off crime writers is often obvious in the first few pages. You can see when an author has never been in a violent situation, when they have never struggled to detain anyone, but those are not the worst flaws. Crime writers who know little about crime miss the humour that is essential if you want to survive in that world.
Cops tell outrageous jokes, cruel and gloomy stories and then laugh like drains. Is it because they are gloomy and callous? A minority are. The majority of awful ( to outsiders) comic lines are just a case of converting the cruelty of the real world into something cops can cope with. If they did not find a way of dealing then they could not complete a shift never mind decades of service.
You don’t have to be a cop or a PI to write great crime fiction. Michael Connelly, who is a giant in the genre was a crime reporter in LA. Unlike his most successful detective character he had not been in a gun fight or grappled with a suspect six stories up on an open fire escape. He had investigated crime for his paper in a world of slime though. He had spent countless hours with cops drinking with them in LA bars. He knew stuff. That shady blend of stuff that only comes to a writer who gets down and dirty in that world.
Wambaugh had all it took to create the 3D characters that he did. They were 3D like a pop up book because he could picture the real life people he based the novels on. Not the plots, he might not even use real reference to recreate the same people doing the same things. He could picture a street hood he had known and transplant them into uniform and reverse the process.
From his first novel The New Centurions in 1971 through The Blue Knight, The Choirboys, The Black Marble and on through titles and years to Harbor Nocturne in 2012 he remained consistently excellent.
He was controversial and he did not always back the cops. That in my view shows the knowledge of his experience as a cop all the better. A good detective doesn’t follow bias or allegiance, they follow facts.
He branched out into none fiction on occasions like the haunting tale in The Onion Field and took pot shots at a police chief or two.
Simply put don’t miss this guy’s writing. I would recommend The Blue Knight if you only ever read one of Joseph Wambaugh’s books. Then again if you like crime fiction and read that book you will read more.
Also let me mention RD Wingfield’s A Touch of Frost
That is a crime show based on six novels about a British copper. Now Wingfield was never a guy who spent time with criminals and you can tell, but it is a nice bit of nostalgia and he did do a very good crime mystery.