Joseph Aloysius Wambaugh, Jr. ( Jan 22, 1937-- ) transformed the sub-genre of the police novel into serious writing that was both harrowing and humorous, comic and tragic. His first four books and his work on the Police Story television series in the 1970s, set new standards for subsequent writers, and many acknowledge their debt to him.
The son of a policeman, Wambaugh was an only child, born and raised in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in a Roman Catholic tradition. Three of his grandparents were Irish immigrants and the fourth was a German-American whose ancestral name, Wambach, was probably altered at Ellis Island. At the age of fourteen he and his parents traveled to California to bury a relative and they decided to stay. At the age of seventeen he graduated from Chaffey High School in Ontario, California, and joined the U.S.Marine Corps for three years. While a Marine he married his high school sweetheart, Dee Allsup, and when off-duty began talking college classes. After his discharge he worked at Kaiser Steel Mill in Fontana, California, and continued his studies as a part-time student at Chaffey College while Dee worked as a telephone operator. He later became a full-time student at California State University, Los Angeles, subsidized by the G.I. Bill. He majored in English, and earned his B.A. degree just before his 23rd birthday, intending to become an English teacher.
He happened to learn that LAPD cops were making more money than teachers, with better benefits and a more exciting job. “Almost on impulse” he took the tests and joined the Los Angeles Police Department on May 2nd 1960. During his first eight years as a cop he worked many assignments in various police divisions, and returned during his off-duty hours to his alma mater where he studied English and Spanish. He received his M.A. degree in 1968 while working as a detective sergeant at Hollenbeck Station in the barrio of Los Angeles where he found plenty of opportunity to use his Spanish. He began to "moonlight," writing about life on the city streets. Nobody other than Dee knew that he was a “closet scribbler,” but by late 1970 everyone would know.
Wambaugh and his wife raised three children and he stayed a cop through three best sellers, but eventually his growing fame made police work impossible for him and his colleagues. People would call the station with bogus crimes and ask for Sgt. Wambaugh to solve them. Suspects he arrested asked for acting roles in film adaptations. When, after multiple appearances on virtually every TV talk show, his longtime detective partner actually opened the car door for him he knew it was time to go. With regret he resigned from the LAPD in 1974 after fourteen years of service, but the scribbling never stopped.