RARA-AVIS: Angeleno Cop-Writers

From: JIM DOHERTY ( jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 27 Sep 2001

Los Angeles has always been a fertile ground for growing cops who become writers. For example, it's worth noting, in the wake of the debut of the latest STAR TREK series, for example, that Gene Roddenberry, then an LAPD sergeant, got his start as a screenwriter putting together screen treatments of real-life cases for DRAGNET. Since I'm a cop-writer myself I thought that, in keeping with this month's theme I'd mention a few of them.

LESLIE WHITE The earliest example I've found of a LA area cop who broke into fiction. He started out as a deputy sheriff in one of the rural counties surrounding LA, then became a DA's Investigator for LA County. He wrote a book of non-fiction memoirs, ME DETECTIVE, and also wrote a number of short stories about LA cops, both for the pulps and for slicks like COLLIER'S. He wrote two full-length cop novels, HARNESS BULL and HOMICIDE in the late '30s. From that point on, he dropped crime fiction altogether and stuck to other genres. It's been suggested that a real-life case that White worked (and wrote about in his autobiography) was the inspiration for the long-forgotten case Phil Marlowe cites in THE HIGH WINDOW, when he's explaining to two LAPD detectives why he doesn't trust cops.

GORDON GORDON That's really his name. He never actually worked in law enforcement in the LA area. His three year stint in the FBI during WW2 was served in Chicago. But he and his wife, Mildred, moved to Southern California where they collaborated on over a dozen suspense novels. Their most frequently used series character, FBI Agent John Ripley, though he started out as a Chicagoan in the early '50s, was stationed in LA during his last two cases, OPERATION TERROR (1962) and THE INFORMANT (1972). The Gordons also wrote about local LA cops in THE CASE OF THE TALKING BUG (1955) and THE BIG FRAME (1957).

BERT HITCHENS A Southern Pacific Railroad Police detective who was married to successful mystery writer Dolores Hitchens.
 He collaborated with her on a series of five novels featuring various members of the Railroad Police Department's LA contingent, beginning with F.O.B. MURDER (1955). These have always resonated with me because my grandfather, the first member of my family to enter law enforcement, was an SP cop. Interestingly, the Hitchens managed to successfully put together a "corporate" cop hero a full year before McBain's first 87th Precinct book.

JOHN BALL An Edgar-winner for IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, the first book about Virgil Tibbs, black man and homicide expert in the suburban force of Pasadena. Ball found the police work he researched for his novels so fascinating that he decided to become a policeman himself. He joined the LA County Sheriff's Office as a reserve deputy. His best book, the posthumously published TH VAN, is about the search for a pair of serial killers by the LASO's Homicide Division.

WILLIAM CAMP A deputy in the LA County Sheriff's Office, he's written two cop novels, NIGHT BEAT, about a rookie's first patrol shift, and THE JACOBS PARK KILLINGS about a murder investigation that uncovers a corrupt police force. The locales are given fictional names like
"Sedona County," but it's clearly LA County he's writing about.

JESS KIMBROUGH A black man who entered the LAPD as a reserve officer in 1915 and retired in 1939 as a detective lieutenant
(lieutenant was as high as black man could get at that time). In 1969, at the age of 77, Kimbrough's first
(and as far as I can tell, only) crime novel DEFENDER OF THE ANGELS was published. It was a fictionalized account of his LAPD career. It's been out-of-print for years but a small, specialty publisher, Blue Line Press, just brought out a new edition. I've never read it, but the subject matter, an honest, black cop in a police force that was, at the time, notoriously corrupt and notoriously racist, seems sure-fire.

JOSEPH WAMBAUGH The godfather of cop-novelists, at least in the US
(writers like Maurice Procter or John Wainwright might claim that title across the pond). He was a detective sergeant in LAPD's Hollenbeck station when his first novel, THE NEW CENTURIONS, hit the best-seller list. He followed it up with novels like THE BLUE KNIGHT and THE CHOIRBOYS, and non-fiction books like THE ONION FIELD and LINES AND SHADOWS.

This post is getting long, so I'll talk about LA-area cop-writers who followed Wambaugh another time.


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