Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Onion Field by Joseph Wambaugh (from 1973)

I greatly enjoy Joseph Wambaugh's work, but his non-fiction books hit me a lot harder than his fiction.  Truthfully, my favorite fiction novels by this cop-turned-author are titles like The Choirboys and The New Centurions, books which seem to be a bit more authentic than some of his more robust offerings.  It's not that he doesn't write well, and I can see where his more entertaining yarns could represent a much-needed departure from the darker territory he tends to cover in his efforts to chronicle actual events.  Yet there's a potency to his non-fiction that cannot be equaled.  I'm being 100% sincere when I say that I can't imagine any author from any era writing a better account of a crime or the efforts of the police to combat the lesser elements of our society.  His impeccable research, his keen understanding of human nature, and his ability to present such tales from all angles are all downright inspiring.  Few writers can tell such stories with Wambaugh's amazing attention to detail without bogging the prose down.  Like Fire Lover, The Blooding, or my personal favorite, Lines and Shadows, The Onion Field is never anything less than riveting even as it digs deeper and deeper into a sadistic crime and the incredibly complicated trials that followed.  At once a deeply personal tale of loss and guilt, it also stands as a powerful rebuke of the legal process.  Those who feel that the courts are far more interested in the rights and the welfare of criminals will only be further embittered by this haunting tale of a fine system gone mad.  A noble cop is killed in cold blood and the guilt of the responsible parties is never in doubt, yet the efforts of the defense to prolong and even sabotage the ensuing trials transform a burning quest for justice into a genuine fiasco.  Sadly, there are moments when the courtroom proceedings become so absurd that the passages wherein the author details those shenanigans wind up being somewhat comical.  The Onion Field has it all: a wealth of drama, powerful characterizations, and a heartbreaking combination of destiny and tragedy.  It is a remarkable piece of writing that is ripe with emotion and will leave readers asking difficult questions and pondering monumental issues.

Final Grade: A+

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