Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Friday, June 16, 2006

Joseph Wambaugh

Wambaugh's true crime books are beyond the scope of this blog, but I ought to start by mentioning that they're probably the best things he does. I especially admire The Onion Field, a haunting story about the spiritual ramifications of violence that's on a very shortlist of truly classic true crime accounts. If you only read one Wambaugh, that's the one to read. (Wambaugh, to his credit, seems to feel that this is his most important work as well.)

I'm not much interested in Wambaugh's later books like The Golden Orange. I remember it as being a perfectly acceptable crime novel, but you can get that all sorts of places. He's coming out with a new cop novel at the end of the year, Hollywood Station, I'm curious what the reaction will be but not so curious that I'm going to run out and get a copy and get an opinion myself, frankly. I'm sure it will be promoted as a return to form, though.

Wambaugh's peak years were the Seventies and the early Eighties, from The New Centurions to around The Glitter Dome. I'm a bit embarrassed to say I haven't read the first two books that made Wambaugh's career, Centurions and The Blue Knight (which was made into a famous TV movie I never saw with William Holden). I can't say I have any particular drive to search those puppies out -- I read a lot of police procedurals and I've read a lot of Wambaugh and it's hard for me to believe that I'm really missing anything I haven't seen sixty times before. If I bump into them, though, I'll pick them up and do an update or something, for the sake of inclusiveness.

Wambaugh has had less influence on the police procedural genre than you might think. What we think of in America when we think of a police story, either in books or on tv, almost certainly ultimately comes from Ed McBain: the squad/unit as "the hero", seperate storylines, an interest in the various nitty-gritty technical aspects of police work, the notion of cops as humans with human problems and weaknesses, etc. (That's not to say McBain was the first to do this stuff, he certainly wasn't. But I think he codified a lot of disparate strands.) Wambaugh was always more interested in Creating Literature, in Making Grand Statements, in Being Artful. His novels (at least, the novels in this group) can be best understood not as crime novels, but rather attempts to write Literature about cops. The books are full of literary fillips: the playing around with black humor, the speechifying, the introspection, the often downbeat endings.

Wambaugh had one real idea: cops lead lives that are not so much dangerous physically as they are dangerous morally and spiritually. (James Ellroy, who famously admired Wambaugh, is said to have sold blood in his ragamuffin days in order to get money to buy Wambaugh books. You can see this idea at work in a lot of Ellroy's fiction, although love him or hate him Ellroy is far more of an artist, and there's a lot more going on.) In his books you'll see that idea beaten into the ground, dug up, and then beaten down again. Wambaugh in fact is a good case of how ideas, even good ideas, have their aestehtic limitations.

It works best in the novels generally in moments: Wambaugh is great in short snapshots showing the humor/horror of a cops's life, but tends to get a little shrill about it over the long haul. Most of Wambaugh's books are middling successes/middling failures -- one reason I'm leery of Centurions and Knight, actually. A book like The Delta Star is typical: you're cruising along enjoying this or that entertaining bit -- something seems funny, or wise, or funny and wise -- only to be brought up short by A Symbolically Wrought Moment. And then we're back again. Wambaugh had bad weaknesses for speechifying and painful literary symbolism right out of a Frosh 101 class. (One is tempted to say Wambaugh could've used a better editor, although I'm not sure these books as conceived were ever going to be more than middling. )

The one Wambaugh novel that I think really works -- well, more or less, anyway -- is The Black Marble. I think it's mainly because it's a love story, which gave Wambaugh a sense of play he really needed: one reason the books above are so mixed is that Wambaugh took himself Awfully Awfully Seriously (even when he's having fun it's Serious Important Fun). Here it's much looser, Wambaugh is clearly not taking himself so seriously, and that gives him some much-needed distance on his material. There's a bounce here, especially to the characterizations, that you just don't find in other Wambaugh books.

Mostly. Even this gets strained here or there. Still, worth a look. What other book of Wambaugh's has a credible middle-aged relationship? Some fascinating stuff about dog shows, too.


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