Monday, December 14, 2009

Joseph Wambaugh: Semper Cop

Patty here…

A week ago Saturday I went to The Mystery Bookstore in Westwood to hear Joseph Wambaugh speak at the sole Los Angeles book signing for his latest novel, Hollywood Moon, the third in his trilogy about LAPD officers in Hollywood Division. He looked boyish and rested, belying his upcoming 73rd birthday.

For the uninitiated, reading one of Wambaugh’s books is to be a fly on the wall of any police station, black-and-white patrol car AKA "shop," or cop bar in the city and to experience humor and pathos in the real language of the blue-suits who protect and serve our city.

Wambaugh is a legend in the literary community, so as you can imagine the crowd at the bookstore was standing room only and included Robert Crais who was in the signing line just behind me. If you contact the store, you can probably still get a signed copy of Hollywood Moon for your very own.

Wambaugh told several amusing stories about the intersection of his police work and his Hollywood connections. He demurred when asked about his favorite authors, admitting he wasn’t well read in the crime fiction genre and in fact, had never opened a Raymond Chandler book until after he had written about eight of his own.

He said he recognized that thrillers are mega bestsellers but he doesn’t want to write them. He prefers to tell stories about the humorous side of the human condition. His villains aren’t über evil monsters out to destroy the world. They are ordinary—sometimes inept—people who make bad choices that tip that first domino.

Wambaugh said he interviews approximately fifty cops for each novel he writes. He credits them with making his books authentic, because except for an authorial tweak here and there, the incidents he writes about are real. He meets with four men or four women at a time. He never mixes the sexes in these get-togethers, because he has learned that the chemistry doesn’t work. Neither does trying to record the conversations because people clam up. On average, he said, it takes four drinks to get the male cops to tell their stories. Females are more loquacious. All they need to get them talking is a sniff of the cork.

When I stepped up to get my book signed, I told him I was an LAPD Reserve Officer, so he signed with his serial number, along with the words “Semper cop,” always a cop.

I sometimes read too much into gestures like that, but because of James Ellroy’s Introduction in the September 2007 paperback of The Choirboys, which I had just reread, I was primed to find longing and regret about his being forced to leave the Department prematurely. Ellroy wrote:

Officer/Sergeant Joseph A. Wambaugh, LAPD 1960-1974. He stayed 14 years. He wanted to stay 20. His celebrity sandbagged him. His author life fucked up his cop life. Suspects recognized him and begged autographs. Agent calls and producer calls swamped the Hollenbeck squadroom. He had to go then—but, oh Jesus—the ride.

According to the bio on Wambaugh’s Web site:

Wambaugh's "moonlighting" novels did, in fact, create something of a stir, particularly in the offices of the L.A.P.D. Wambaugh's superiors were not pleased that the young officer had written an "inside" view of their department, let alone one that featured officers who accepted gratuities and committed perjury. Wambaugh recalls in a Publishers Weekly interview the reaction of his superior officers: "The problem arose because (my novels) depicted cops as human beings, complete with rotten moods and frailties, and not as the robots people are accustomed to seeing on television shows about policemen.... I could see the administration being mad if I were giving away secrets, but I'm not: there are no secrets to reveal." Still, pressure from superiors and his increasing celebrity forced Wambaugh to take an extended leave from the L.A.P.D., during which time he researched and wrote what would become his most important work [the non fiction book The Onion Field].

Wambaugh resigned from the Department after publication of The Onion Field and has enjoyed continued success in the book world as well as in Hollywood. On Saturday, he joked that if he’d stayed on with the LAPD he would probably be retired now and working security at Walmart, but I wondered if he still missed the adrenaline rush, the camaraderie and the stories he once experienced firsthand, because once a cop; always a cop.

On Our J's post last Friday, one of our Naked Readers (berenmind) asked us for some books on our holiday wish list. Mine includes Joseph Wambaugh's The Onion Field because the history and tradition of playing bagpipes at the funerals of LAPD officers killed in the line of duty began with the death of Officer Ian Campbell, a bagpipe player, who was murdered in an onion field outside of Bakersfield.

What books are on your holiday wish list?

Happy Monday!


  1. I have a strange feeling that Wambaugh is going to be on my reading list very soon. Thanks, Patty!

  2. Great photo and insight to the man, Patty.

    I got to do a signing with Mr. Wambaugh at this year's LATFOB. What a charming and gracious man! And forget 73. I wish I looked as good when I was 53.

    His new one is on my Christmas list.

  3. Hope you enjoy, Jeff.

    LU, I agree with the adjectives.

  4. James O. Born12/14/2009 12:32 PM

    You know how I feel about JW. I've blogged about him. he has given me advice on writing and police work and I listened to him.

    He's the best.

    Jim B

  5. Hey! Doesn't anybody have a book on their holiday list?

  6. Patty, The Onion Field has just hit my gift list to myself - and it's pretty much all books!

  7. Fascinating info and great photos. Hard to imagine Wambaugh is in his 70s!

    I have a family member who was in the LAPD the same time as Wambaugh and he remembers Wambaugh sitting at a table and cops lining up to tell him their stories. I'll send my relative a link to this story.

    I didn't know the bagpipe funeral tradition goes back to THE ONION FIELD case. Interesting!

    Pat Browning

  8. Pat, I have friends who have that same memory of Wambaugh taking notes, in bars especially. A friend who plays in the LA Police Emerald Society Pipe and Drum band told me the Ian Campbell story.