The Onion Field by Joseph Wambaugh

414+S1Lif3LHollywood. 1963. A Saturday night. A broken taillight leads to a routine traffic stop. It shouldn’t have changed the lives of the four men involved, but it did. Before the night was over, one was dead, two would find themselves facing the death penalty, and the other’s life would never be the same again. Fresh from a string of robberies, the car contained two desperate men who got the drop on the two LAPD cops who stopped them, seized their guns and kidnapped them. They then drove to a rural onion field where they decided to execute the cops. One officer was able to escape, but only at the price of his partner’s life. Haunted by horrific memories, wracked by guilt, ostracized by his own, and repeatedly tormented by defence attorneys in one retrial after another as the defendants manipulate the quicksilver legal system, this cop suffered emotional meltdown. Wambaugh, takes us meticulously through the crime, second by second, and then tells the surviving cop’s powerful and moving story: the destruction of a forgotten victim. The Onion Field is Joseph Wambaugh’s best-known and most celebrated work. It may be based on a true story, but it reads like a novel, much like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

This book came to me as a recommendation – and what a great recommendation it was. As a group we thoroughly enjoyed In Cold Blood so when this was described to me as a book that was similar to that little masterpiece I was very keen to give it a try. The first part of the book describes the killers (Smith and Powell), their upbringing, and their personalities later in life. Unlike fiction novels, where the villain is very rarely given a platform for their personal stories, non-fiction novels seem to delve into the minds of such characters with relish.

Learning about the killers was both interesting and baffling in equal measures. It was interesting to access the thoughts and drives of the killers, but their incompetence in executing robberies was simply perplexing. How these guys hadn’t been caught in the act, or caught soon after, was extraordinary. Was it luck? Was it police incompetence? I’m really not sure, but whatever it was it’s still hard to digest that they got away with so much for so long.

Reading the description of the the killing, and the subsequent botched-up effort to kill the second police officer (Hettinger), was simply harrowing. There were no fancy words and terminology, Wambaugh simply told it as it was, and it was truly terrifying. You cannot imagine what was going through the mind of the surviving police officer after having witnessed the cold-blooded murder of his partner (Campbell). It was equally upsetting to read about Hettinger’s treatment after the terrifying ordeal and even more distressing to find that he was back on the beat within days of the kidnap. As a group we thought that this must have been hugely traumatic for him and would certainly have contributed to his slow mental decline.

The reaction from the police department, and Los Angeles citizens, after the kidnapping was also an interesting topic of discussion. Rather than offering the sympathetic approach they began to victimise Hettinger, which became very uncomfortable. The lack of support for Hettinger began to show and his life began to deteriorate in a very sad fashion. It was a sorrowful life for that poor man and I found it very difficult to read, as did many of the group.

One thing that never comes to light in the book, and never seems to be clarified throughout the trial, is who exactly killed Campbell. We can guess, and the evidence is pretty overwhelming, but we never truly know. This became an interesting talking point for they were both going down for murder, and would be in line for the death penalty, so it didn’t make sense that they would hide the truth from the courts.

The sheer coldness and complete lack of remorse from both killers was both chilling and mystifying. To make things even worse they both escape the death penalty in the most fortuitous circumstances. Justice never quite seems to prevail in this book; it’s a very sad affair.

This was a fascinating read, and if you like to read crime fiction then I would definitely recommend giving this novel a try. Not only is it filled with the normal detective discussions and aspects, but it also covers some interesting territory that will have your mind working overtime. A brilliant piece of writing on such a horrific topic. A definite must read.

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About the group

The Tees Valley Book Group meets at Stockton Central Library at 6.30pm on the first Tuesday of the month.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit


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