Book Review: The New Centurions, Joseph Wambaugh

I got the tip on writer Joseph Wambaugh from mystery writer Michael Connelly. He cites Wambaugh as one of his influences. I looked up Joseph Wambaugh and learned that he is an ex-LAPD cop with 14 years experience. He is also referred to as the “Grand Master of Police novels” and has won two Edgar Awards. I found The New Centurions a compelling read from start to finish. I loved it. This is an emotionally moving novel and one of the best cop novels I’ve read. I finished this story late Sunday night and what a journey it was.

Cover shows an image of a badge with several cops The New Centurions, published in 1971, follows the careers of three police officers during the 1960’s. From their entry into the police academy and then onto the streets of Los Angeles. Idealistic men, looking to change the world and the world changes them instead. The book is mainly about police work, street crime and the law and goes on to end with the 1965 riots in Watts. Really, this is just a string of stories  told in third person and runs about 388 pages long.

The characters are fleshed out really, really well in here. I felt like I knew these men inside and out. While there are many police officers featured in the story, the main recurring characters are Serge Duran, Augustus Plebesly and Roy Fehler. Each of the men go their separate ways after they leave the academy. They are partnered with seasoned officers for street patrol and we watch as they learn how to be fine police officers. We follow these men for five years. Their growth from the time they left the academy to them working as plains clothes police officers seemed very authentic.

This is a great cop book and I now understand the fuss about Joseph Wambaugh and it is justified. The best parts of the book are when the men are on patrol and when we are inside each of their heads. A lot the crimes are as you would expect: prostitution, lewd conduct, petty theft, child abuse, domestic abuse and more. Many of the angst and drama was drawn from these men’s personal lives and the lives of the people they meet. This is truly an immersive story. Some of the men had to conquer self-doubt, fear and  depression. Some had marital problems. Some had dreams left unfulfilled. There’s a couple of love stories that were touching. The depiction of chaos with the riots kind of brought out the best in each of the men and solidified something inside them.

The author didn’t give any romanticized view of police work. I think he struck the right balance by showing us how human and flawed they were. The police department are not without their own troubles (police brutality and corruption). This book is raw in its depiction of race relations and crime.  There are touching moments of insight and nostalgia cut in between with a touch of humor. One crutch though: I hated how this book ended but I won’t hold that against it as I was kind of expecting it.  Overall, The New Centurions was simply unforgettable. I loved reading it and finished this book in a weekend. Excellent story. Here are the sample pages. Source: bought this one

Note: There is a 1972 film based off the book that starred George C. Scott, Stacy Keach, Jane Alexander

Pic credit: Wikipedia 

About Keishon

Romance reader now mystery reader. I enjoy all types of fiction but for the past 5 years I've enjoyed reading crime fiction. Please email me with recommendations or gush about your favorite writer! I love to hear from readers!
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12 Responses to Book Review: The New Centurions, Joseph Wambaugh

  1. This sounds good. I have never read him either. I love your line about the usual crimes! LOL


  2. Keishon – I think Wambaugh sometimes doesn’t get the attention he should. His work really is one of the foundations of today’s American cop novel and I’m glad you enjoyed this one.


  3. FictionFan says:

    Sounds really interesting – I’ve never come across this author before, so thanks for highlighting him!


  4. Darlynne says:

    When the book first came out, Wambaugh was everywhere in terms of visibility, praise and, of course, movies. Serpico, too, came around that time, and in the 90s, Kim Wozencraft wrote RUSH, about her days undercover and in narcotics. But Wambaugh really set the bar, imo.

    K. C. Constantine–now that’s a name you never hear any more–wrote about Mario Balzic, police chief in Rocksburg, PA, beginning in the 70s. His style is completely different from Wambaugh’s, but I mention him because his writing is spare, clean and he has the best ear for realistic dialog. No one knows anything about him beyond a few basics facts, but I’ve read all of his books and enjoyed them immensely.

    These authors and so many others nurtured my interest in and respect for good police procedural fiction. I think that’s partly why I so detest writing from the killer’s POV. Great review, Keishon.


    • Keishon says:

      Hey Darlynne, I bought SERPICO by Peter Maas several weeks ago. It sounded really interesting and I wanted to read it and I’ve never seen the movie from which it is based on. My focus now is read whatever books I can find that set the foundation for the genre we both enjoy. You are also a wealth of information for forgotten books for which I am thankful. I am off to look up these writers.


  5. TracyK says:

    I have always been a little intimidated by this author, thinking his books too gritty for me. So I was interested when you said you were going to review one of his books. I am getting to be more adventurous now, and you do make this book sound very good. Plus I enjoy reading books written in the 70’s and the 80’s. I will look for this one or maybe one of his other books.


  6. Col says:

    Keishon, I’ve read the odd Wambaugh over the years, The Golden Orange and The Onion Field. You have just reminded me to get back to him soon. I hope you plan on reading more from him.


    • Keishon says:

      Hey Col, yes, I bought three of his books and will read more from him. He’s great. I don’t expect his latter books to be like his first one.


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