Written for “Advanced Narrative Journalism” independent study course with professor Bob Sipchen at Occidental College, spring 2010.
May 8, 2010
Daina Beth Solomon
People tell stories to express histories, events, concepts and ideas and writers understand that such stories can never be impartial or objective. Rather than simply reporting facts, stories shape facts, giving them new significance and relevance. By stressing certain points and omitting or downplaying others, writers seek to express a certain slant or angle. In the process, writers often distort or modify the truth – intentionally developing their stories to support a theme or message. As Pulitzer-winning narrative journalist Jon Franklin wrote in Telling True Stories, “Narrative writers can bring meaning to journalism. The successful narrative writer presumes that he or she can find meaning in real life and can report on it” (qtd. in Kramer 109). Such is the case in The Onion Field, a non-fiction book published in 1973 by Joseph Wambaugh.
The Onion Field is an account of the 1963 kidnapping of Los Angeles Police Department officers Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger, and the murder of Campbell on an onion farm near Bakersfield. The book also covers the ensuing criminal trial of Gregory Powell and Jimmy Smith who were charged with the crimes. In 1963, Wambaugh was a young cop with the LAPD only three years on the job. But he had a sharp ear and a keen eye, and the momentous events that rocked the LAPD during that year would stay with him. His book is not strictly objective, but instead conveys a specific theme, that the real crime was what happened after the onion field shooting. To Wambaugh, the LAPD’s response to the murder and to the actions of its officers was misguided and detrimental. Additionally, he sees the court system, which allowed the trial to drag on for years based on petty motions and issues within the legal system, as dysfunctional and harmful to the many people who were involved with the case.
Wambaugh’s insertion of himself into the story as an unidentified “young vice cop” proves that he aimed for his book to promote a specific message. The young vice cop, Wambaugh, is seen arguing with an older cop about the new memorandum released by the LAPD instructing officers to never give up their guns, the supposed “wrong move” that Campbell and Hettinger made that lead to their kidnapping and the murder of Campbell. The young vice cop disagrees with the memorandum. He says, “This kind of thing’s been going on since time immemorial and right here in the L.A. area…Now all of a sudden because one set of maniacs blows up a cop we’re gonna say Campbell and Hettinger did it wrong and change our whole policy” (4252-58). However, he concedes that speaking against or disobeying the higher levels of LAPD authority wouldn’t make a difference. The narrator continues, “The red-faced, green-eyed vice cop had difficulty controlling his anger, for he was an emotional young man. But he was also accustomed to line authority first in the Marines and now on the police force. He would one day try to record what he knew about police life, but for now he seethed in silence. He kept his newspaper clippings in his pocket. He could not stand and dispute the captain. He lacked that kind of courage and he knew it.” The details of the cop’s green eyes, youth, Marine training and desire to record police life make obvious that the young man was Wambaugh. Publishing The Onion Field was Wambaugh’s chance to talk back and challenge the handling of the onion field case. Years later, he could finally make a difference.
Many techniques contribute to the development of Wambaugh’s message, including organization and structure, writing style and word choice and elimination of information (Wambaugh consulted 65,000 pages of court records and over 60 people). One particularly notable technique is the use of foreshadowing. Wambaugh often inserts hints – sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant – to indicate what will happen later in the story. The hints all have a purpose – they are not merely for extra information but to push forward the plot and overall message. Wambaugh is particularly adept at the “Chekov’s Gun” technique. According to this technique, elements introduced early in a work must eventually reveal themselves to be significant. As Chekov explained it, “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” Everything that Wambaugh hints at, even the innocuous or random, eventually “goes off,” its connection to the story and theme suddenly obvious. This technique is effective because it allows Wambaugh to line up various details as “proof” of his “thesis” of the ineffective and detrimental responses from the LAPD and legal system without halting the narrative in order to explain each detail’s significance. Bit by bit, readers piece together the details and build an interpretation of the facts and events. Wambaugh’s careful foreshadowing ensures that their interpretation matches his own. It’s important to note that when the book was published in 1973, most Angelenos already knew the story of, which had received media coverage for years. When Wambaugh hints at the future, Angeleno readers know what he’s referring to and feel like insiders to the story. For those who don’t know the story, foreshadowing heightens the suspense.
One way that Wambaugh foreshadows is by mentioning what will occur in the future without leaving the past tense or jumping forward in time. A scene from Hettinger’s life before the kidnapping provides one example. Wambaugh explains that, “Pictures of Karl Hettinger would verify that he was much heavier now than he had ever been in his life. The pictures would reveal the fullness in his lightly freckled face, the crew cut would make his face even fuller. The pictures would be on the front pages” (521-27). The mention of “front pages” indicates that something momentous will happen to push Hettinger to the center of attention. But there is a more subtle hint too. Later in the story, Hettinger loses weight and an inch in height and is described as shrunken and frail. Readers recall Wambaugh’s initial description of Hettinger being “heavy” and understand how much he’s changed. As well, the multiple references to Hettinger’s transition from healthy to weak emphasize that the handling of the case – first by the LAPD and then by the court system – severely damaged his health.
In another example Wambaugh recalls an enjoyable evening where Hettinger and his wife dance at an LAPD party. Wambaugh then halts the narrative to interject, “But the ninth of March was less than three months away. This would be their last police department dancing party” (707-13). While these lines don’t explain what will happen, it’s clear that a sobering experience will suck away any desire to dance and be cheerful. Hints like these engage the reader by creating a sense of foreboding and suspense. Also, these hints invite the reader to predict what will happen and take part in the story.
Other examples are more veiled, but still potent, with the same purpose of pushing forward plot and theme. When the trial begins Wambaugh writes, “For Karl Hettinger, the summer was unbearably long…It was estimated that the trial would last all summer” (4836-43). The trial ended up lasting seven years. If Hettinger thinks the summer is unbearably long, it’s clear that he won’t be able to stand seven years. This statement also refers to the naïve expectations of the court when it begins the case. Of course, Wambaugh doesn’t yet tell the reader that the trial will end up taking seven years. Instead, he lets readers find this out on their own, allowing a sense of outrage to develop individually.
Wambaugh also alludes to problems in the court system by allowing characters to reflect on their decisions in retrospect without jumping forward to the future. One example is a decision of Prosecutor Marshall Schulman. As Wambaugh explains it, “Marshall Schulman would be told a hundred times in later years that he could have put on an impregnable case in one week with just these two witnesses. But that, he would bitterly answer, was hindsight” (4448-54). The inclusion of this fact also builds a sense of outrage at the court system that allowed a trial to drag on for so long, draining state resources as well as the health of many. The statement also alludes to the future of the case – that it was doomed to last much, much, longer.
The idea of being “doomed” or “destined” to a fate – another kind of foreshadowing – enters in Wambaugh’s narrative early in the book. As Smith and Powell, the murderers, drive through LA with no plans to abduct two cops, Wambaugh narrates, “And they drove toward Hollywood. Through the night. To their destiny” (2601-7). Later, after they’ve kidnapped Campbell and Hettinger and are driving toward Bakersfield, Wambaugh says, “Karl’s heart began pounding with new vigor, as did Ian’s, as did Jimmy Smith’s and Gregory Powell’s, as each approached his destiny” (7839). Following the crime, Smith wonders if he could have done something different, or if he was helplessly trapped in fate. Wambaugh writes, “For the rest of his life he would wonder if he could’ve made another play, played his own hand, or drawn different cards. Or was the hand played around him? Does somebody stack that fuckin deck, he often wondered, and ain’t nothin you can do about it? It was something he never decided” (1603-9). The references to “destiny” imply that it would have been impossible to fight circumstances, that Campbell and Hettinger couldn’t have done anything else to save themselves and that Powell and Smith were inescapably rotten crooks. The idea of “destiny” also implies that it would have been impossible to stand up to the LAPD and legal systems. Indeed, those who voiced opposition to LAPD or court proceedings were ignored or silenced, without the freedom to speak their minds.
The theme of freedom is important to Wambaugh, and again foreshadowing helps to establish its importance. Wambaugh describes the background of each main character before getting into main plot points. The use of a third-person omniscient voice allows him to reveal the inner thoughts of his characters. One incident he describes takes place in Hettinger’s childhood, when he stole some fishing plugs. The boy is caught, but then released. Hettinger is grateful, and thinks, “Nothing could be more fearful than losing one’s freedom. To be confined. Never to see a golden cloudburst or rivers of sunlight on dark flowers” (589-95). This thought establishes a view of confinement as the worst punishment. It also links Hettinger, a cop, to Powell and Smith, two criminals who spend most of their lives behind bars, suggesting that a fear of losing freedom is universal. As well, Hettinger’s thought foreshadows that Powell and Smith will spend the rest of their lives in prison. It also foreshadows Hettinger’s own imprisonment – not in a jail, but in his own world of self-doubt and achingly high self-standards.
The book portrays Hettinger as its most important character. He experiences both the murder in the onion field and also the ordeal that follows. According to Wambaugh’s depiction, he is the character that suffers most, even more than Smith or Powell who are imprisoned for life. He even suffers more than his murdered partner who died instantly. Wambaugh implies that the LAPD and legal system’s response to the incident harmed Hettinger just as much if not more than the crime itself. He begins to develop Hettinger’s story even before Chapter One begins, with a passage in italics about an unnamed gardener. Passages about the gardener appear intermittently in the book, and gradually the reader discovers that they are jumps into the future of Hettinger, who eventually leaves his police work to become a gardener. However, to the uninformed reader, these passages are a mystery, offering no clues to the gardener’s identity. The gardener even thinks about his “crimes,” causing the reader to wonder whether the gardener is one of the murderers of the onion field. It finally becomes clear that the gardener is Hettinger when his “future” as a gardener becomes the current point in time that Wambaugh is narrating. Because they run throughout the book, the passages link themes of destiny, guilt, remorse, freedom, confinement, growth and memory. The passages also emphasize the harsh reality of Hettinger’s fate because they are strikingly different from what readers would expect, yet also fit with a character they knew all along.
The end of the book fills with example upon example of Hettinger’s mental, emotional and physical health deteriorating. Meanwhile, Powell and Smith have adjusted to prison life, with Powell continuing to act as the head of his family through letters and visits. The reader sympathizes with Hettinger, blaming the LAPD and the court system for a trial that lasted seven years without benefiting anyone, except possibly the criminals. The foreshadowing that wove this idea throughout the book has been successful. But was it appropriate for Wambaugh to convey such a powerful message in a work of non-fiction? Is the book journalism? The answer is yes on both accounts. Writing is always influenced by the writer’s personal histories and experiences. In aiming for accuracy, the best journalists can do is structure their story around a message that is truthful and conveys a deeper meaning. Other important elements are what Roy Peter Clark calls “cornerstone principles” of maintaining the line between fact and fiction: “Do not add” and “Do not deceive” (qtd. in Kramer 116). Wambaugh is not a journalist. He is not even trained as a writer, and The Onion Field was his first book of nonfiction. Yet he follows the rules of narrative journalism. The book is based on a true event and many were familiar with its details. Wambaugh could not have added material without jeopardizing his credibility. The recreated scenes and interior thoughts of characters are believable because they are supported by facts. Nor did Wambaugh deceive the reader. Wambaugh’s history as an LAPD officer – and one who experienced the effects of the onion field case firsthand – gives him credibility as an expert. As well, his motives for writing the book are evident because of the insertion in the book of Wambaugh as a character who is unhappy with the LAPD’s response. While such a motive could lend itself to reckless LAPD-bashing, Wambaugh’s narrative is controlled, detail-laden and filled with different perspectives. Readers can believe that Wambaugh’s depiction of the LAPD and court system is truthful.
The element of truth is important. The Onion Field could be seen just a thrilling noir story of crime and murder. But the book has a deeper message, one that pertains to the reality of life in Los Angeles and to its systems of criminal justice. Helped by the technique of foreshadowing, Wambaugh conveys a critique of the handling of the Onion Field case without distorting the truth of the story. More than offer entertainment, the book makes readers knowledgeable and informed about their world.
“Checkov’s Gun.” 12 Mar 2010. Wikipedia. 12 Mar 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chekhov’s_gun>.
Wambaugh, Joseph. The Onion Field. New York: Bantam Dell, 1973.
Kramer, Matt and Wendy Call. Telling True Stories. New York: Plume, 2007.
 Page numbers refer to the Kindle edition.