Although some of his best work has been nonfiction--"The Onion Field" was both a literary hit and a successful movie--three of his four nonfiction books prompted lawsuits. He prevailed, but the headaches and expenses were too much to make another worthwhile.
Instead, Wambaugh bides his time between novels, waiting for inspiration. He takes in the view of the harbor, plays a little golf, makes an occasional trip to the desert with his wife, Dee, and keeps an eye on his dogs.
He does not seem to need the company of many friends, but he keeps in touch with a few. And although he hears from police officers all around the country, he says his reputation among them has shifted over the years.
"It used to be that everywhere I went, cops would know me and would have read my books," says Wambaugh as he pilots his polished black Volvo up the hill to his house. "Now, the younger cops, they've heard of me, but they haven't read the books. They don't read anymore."
That hardly seems to trouble Wambaugh. He's graduated from police work to writing in a grand and celebrated fashion. He has a body of work to make any author proud, a marriage that has lasted his entire adult life. And yet, even now, the legacy of the police department he left behind still tugs at him.
"I still dream about it," he says. "I have this stress dream where I have gone back to the job and my uniform is totally outdated, and I'm sort of just showing up and working part time. I'm desperately trying to get my uniform straight and my Sam Browne straight, and I'm running around, out of place. . . . Here I am, 59, and I'm still having that dream."