The New Centurions



THERE IS A BEDROCK TRUTH that resides in the heart of this book. And that is that the best crime stories are not about how cops work on cases. They are about how cases work on cops. They are not about how the cops work the streets. They are about how the streets work the cops. Procedure is window dressing. Character is king.

This is a truth we learn when we read the work of Joseph Wambaugh. No assessment of this novel or the other work of this policeman turned writer can conclude that he is anything other than one of the great innovators of the crime novel. Wambaugh brought the truth with him when he left the police department for the publishing house.

A century after its first inception the crime novel had moved from the hands of Edgar Allan Poe to the practitioners of the private eye novel. More often than not, these tomes told the story of the loner detective who works outside of the system he distrusts and even despises, who must overcome obstacles that often happen to be the corrupted police themselves. It fell to Wambaugh, with his stark and gritty realism, to take the story inside the system to the police station and the patrol car where it truly belonged. To tell the stories of the men who did the real work and risked their lives and their sanity to do it. And to explore a different kind of corruption—the premature cynicism and tarnished nobility of the cop who has looked too often and too long into humanity’s dark abyss.

Wambaugh used the crime novel and the lives of his character cops as the lens with which he examined society. Within the ranks of his police officers he explored the great socio-economic divide of our cities, racism, alcoholism and many other facets of the rapidly changing world. He used cops to make sense of the chaos. And he did it by simply telling their stories. The episodic narrative of this book and those that followed became his signature. And along the way he gave us looks into the lives of characters like Serge Duran, Roy Fehler, and Bumper Morgan, full blooded and flawed, and placed them on the sunswept streets of Los Angeles. His first two books, The New Centurions and The Blue Knight, are perfect bookends that offer the full scope of police life and Wambaugh’s power. The former traced three officers through the police academy and their early years on the job. The latter traced a veteran officer’s last three days on the job. No one had ever read books like these before. They were the mark of a true innovator.

It is important to note that Wambaugh wrote his first books while still on the job. The detective sergeant did the real work by day while pounding out the made-up stuff at night on a portable Royal typewriter. His family had to sleep through the clatter. The results were uncontested as some of the most vivid police prose ever put on paper. Wambaugh opened up a world to the reader, a world no one outside of those who did the real work had ever seen before. Cop novelist Evan Hunter called it right on the money in the New York Times when he said, “Mr. Wambaugh is, in fact, a writer of genuine power, style, wit, and originality who has chosen to write about police in particular as a means of expressing his views on society in general.”

A hundred years ago the philosopher Friedrich Nietz-sche warned us that whoever fights