Thrillers: 100 Must Reads. An interview with James O. Born

Special to the Big Thrill by Hank Wagner.

100-must-reads.jpgThe much-heralded ITW project THRILLERS: 100 MUST-READS is scheduled to be published by Oceanview this July, debuting at ThrillerFest.  To whet your appetite for this essential book, we’re going to feature a series of short interviews with various essayists in upcoming issues.  This interview is with James O. Born, who contributed a piece on Joseph Wambaugh’s seminal police procedural,The Choirboys.

You wrote about Joseph Wambaugh’s The Choirboys. Was it your first choice to write about? If so, why? Does it fulfill your personal definition of a “must read”?

The Choirboys was my first choice for a number of reasons. On a personal level, Joseph Wambaugh and his novels were what led me towards a career in police work. From the aspect of police work there are so few realistic novels about police and their lives that Wambaugh did an excellent job using his experience to shed light on different aspects of the occupation. Wambaugh touches on it all, the role of luck, the randomness of events on an every day basis, the camaraderie and rivalry that can grow from working day in and day out in an intense occupation with the same men and women.

The Choirboys is a must read because it doesn’t fit the common, cookie-cutter mold police stories. From a writing aspect, Wambaugh does a masterful job of weaving together disparate vignettes into a satisfying conclusion. For most people, their only experience with police work is either getting a traffic ticket or watching shows on TV. Neither gives you an accurate picture of the day to day lives of police officers. The Choirboys gives the reader an alternative view and makes the reader look at each cop like a real person, not some robot in a uniform who doesn’t care about anything but the job.

The truly amazing thing about The Choirboys is that although it was written in the mid-70s, it holds up surprisingly well. Some of the slang has changed but the intensity and emotion that Wambaugh writes about is just as relevant in the new millennium as it was during the Me Decade.

If you were re-reading the novel, how long ago did you first read it?  About how old were you when you read it? What immediate impact did  that first reading have on you? What influence did the book have on your career or your writing?

jim-born.jpgI first read The Choirboys in the late 70s, just before the movie was released. I thought it was funny and interesting, but in all honesty I didn’t catch the deeper meaning and the tortured souls that Wambaugh was trying to write about. For the record the movie, starring Charles Durning, is a very poor adaptation to the book.

When I reread the novel for the first time in thirty years, I had a different perspective both from being a career law enforcement officer and from having studied writing for so long. It made me appreciate what Wambaugh had achieved in both of his careers. He is absolutely one of my heroes.

What was it like re-reading the book? Was it as good as you remembered?  Did the novel age well? The language? Were you able to step back and read it like a reader, rather than a professional writer?

The language of the novel is perhaps the only thing that is dated. I honestly don’t hear the racial and ethnic slurs that rolled off a tongues of the cops from the 70s so easily. I am, in fact, uncomfortable with most of the phrases used for comic effect but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate why they were said and the era in which the book was written. But the story is of choices, alliances, trauma and ultimate forgiveness, will continue to ring true for many years to come. Wambaugh tapped into a classic storyline and modernized it much like he did the New Centurions and or The Blue Knight.

Given that you had a word limit for your essay, is there anything you’d like to say about the book that you didn’t get to say in the essay?

I’d say that people’s perception of police and investigation is so much different today due to all the reality shows and the dramas which purport to be realistic that the novel could be a revelation to sum police junkies. To see the everyday situations that blow up into tragedy or create heroes is the essence of understanding police work. I’ve heard a classic phrase attributed to Wambaugh : “A police shift is hours of boredom punctuated by seconds of terror.” Whether he said it or not, he captures the essence of it and the intensity of the phrase in The Choirboys. It’s hard to think of cops as government automatons ever again after reading The Choirboys.

To see what Jim had to say about The Choirboys, be sure to pick up a copy of THRILLERS: 100 MUST READS when it debuts in July during ThrillerFest. One hundred of your colleagues writing about one hundred classic thrillers make this book “must” reading.

Hank Wagner is a prolific and respected critic and interviewer. His work regularly appears in such publications as Mystery Scene, Cemetery Dance, Nova Express, and The New York Review of Science Fiction.

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