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The Onion Field by Joseph Wambaugh Review

Title: The Onion Field

Author: Joseph Wambaugh

First published January 1, 1973

512 pages, Paperback

ISBN: 9780385341592 (ISBN10: 0385341598)

Rating: 4.11


Prepare yourself for a heart-pounding and chilling true tale. The Onion Field by Joseph Wambaugh follows the fateful encounter of two young police officers and two young robbers, whose paths collide in a deserted Los Angeles field.

The events of that March night will leave you shocked and captivated as you witness the devastating consequences of their chance encounter. This is a story of tragedy and the unpredictable nature of life, told with raw honesty and gripping detail.

About the Author

Joseph Wambaugh, the author of twenty-one books, both fiction and nonfiction, is a former LAPD detective sergeant. He served the Los Angeles Police Department for 14 years, starting in 1960 and rising to the rank of detective sergeant.

During that time, he also attended California State University, Los Angeles, where he earned both his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees.

In 2004, the Mystery Writers of America honored him by naming him Grand Master. Joseph Wambaugh continues to live in southern California.

Editoral Review

In January 1973, Joseph Wambaugh published a true-crime book titled The Onion Field that quickly became a bestseller and a literary classic. Wambaugh is an American author and former police officer known for his gritty, realistic portrayals of law enforcement and criminals.

The Onion Field is his most famous work, and it revolutionized the true-crime genre by exploring the psychological and social impact of a violent crime on both the victims and the perpetrators. The Onion Field is a meticulously researched and vividly written book that tells the story of a horrific crime that took place in Los Angeles in 1963.

Two police officers, Karl Hettinger and Ian Campbell, were kidnapped by two ex-cons, Gregory Powell and Jimmy Lee Smith, after a routine traffic stop. The officers were taken to an onion field in Bakersfield, where Powell shot and killed Campbell and tried to kill Hettinger.

The book follows the aftermath of the crime, including the investigation, the trial, and the emotional toll it took on everyone involved. The main characters in The Onion Field are real people, and Wambaugh uses their own words and actions to create a gripping narrative.

Hettinger and Powell are the two central figures, and their contrasting personalities and motivations are explored in depth. Hettinger is a young and inexperienced cop who faces intense guilt and trauma after the kidnapping, while Powell is a hardened criminal who manipulates and schemes to avoid punishment.

The other characters, including fellow police officers, lawyers, judges, and witnesses, are also well-drawn and add complexity to the story. The setting of The Onion Field is crucial to the book’s themes and tone.

Wambaugh depicts Los Angeles and Bakersfield as gritty, seedy, and violent places, where crime and corruption are rampant. He also explores the social and cultural issues of the time, including the tensions between the police and the African American community and the changing attitudes towards law and order.

The book’s historical and cultural significance lies in its depiction of the criminal justice system and its flaws, as well as its impact on the psyche of the police officers and the public. On a critical level, The Onion Field is a masterful work of true crime that combines meticulous research with literary flair.

Wambaugh’s prose is sharp, succinct, and evocative, and he uses dialogue and description to create a sense of immediacy and authenticity. The pacing of the book is expertly handled, with tension and suspense building gradually towards the climactic trial.

The themes of the book, including justice, morality, loyalty, and survival, are universal and timeless, and resonate with readers today. However, The Onion Field does have some limitations that may affect readers’ enjoyment of it.

The book is over 400 pages long, and some readers may find it too dense or overwhelming. There are also graphic descriptions of violence and trauma that may be disturbing to some readers.

Additionally, some critics have noted that Wambaugh’s portrayal of Powell’s motivation and psychology may be overly simplistic or sensationalized. Overall, The Onion Field is a must-read for anyone interested in true crime, police work, or the human condition.

It is a gripping, insightful, and powerful book that combines factual accuracy with literary skill. Wambaugh’s understanding of the flaws and virtues of the criminal justice system and human nature is profound, and he offers no easy answers or judgments.

The Onion Field is a timeless classic that will continue to fascinate and challenge readers for generations to come. Rating: 4.5/5

Recommended for: Fans of true crime, police procedurals, and literary non-fiction.

Reasons to read: Compelling story, vivid characters, evocative setting, relevant themes.

Caveats: Graphic violence, lengthy and dense, may oversimplify psychology.