Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The New Centurions, 40 Years Later

I’d never read anything by Joseph Wambaugh, so I went ahead and read his first novel, The New Centurions (1970). Don’t be fooled by the original cheesy cover: Centurions is gritty, harrowing, occasionally sentimental, but ultimately really a pretty great book.

The novel shifts among the lives of three main L.A. policemen, from their academy days through their first five years of service. For the most part, Centurions is episodic -- vignettes from vice, juvenile, domestic, felony crime, etc. -- though it follows the men through personal and, to a lesser extent, professional relationships. Wambaugh also carefully charts a range of attitudes toward police work -- and captures fear, prejudice, maybe nihilism. The novel culminates -- semi-apocalyptically -- in the 1965 Watts riots.

More than other police procedurals (usually with a central case followed to the end), Centurions reminds me of the ensemble World War II books I’ve read lately: Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and Jones’s The Thin Red Line. So (and I say this without judgment), Centurions is more a novel about cops than a cop novel.

Because the novel has no single protagonist and no central plot line per se, as good as this book is, I don’t know that it would be published today as a first novel by an unknown writer. Who knows, but I can imagine someone along the way telling Wambaugh he should write either narrative non-fiction (or a memoir) -- or a more tightly plotted police procedural. Those alternatives seem less compelling (or compelling in a different way) than what Wambaugh delivered.

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