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The Onion Field

4.14  ·  Rating details ·  17,926 ratings  ·  336 reviews
This is the frighteningly true story of two young cops and two young robbers whose separate destinies fatally cross one March night in a bizarre execution in a deserted Los Angeles field.
Paperback, Reprint, 512 pages
Published August 28th 2007 by Delta (first published 1973)
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Dennis Banahan Yes, the book and the movie were based on the true-life assassinations of two LAPD police officers, Karl Hettinger and Ian Campbell. The movie,…moreYes, the book and the movie were based on the true-life assassinations of two LAPD police officers, Karl Hettinger and Ian Campbell. The movie, starring James Woods, John Savage and Ted Danson, was nominated for a Golden Globe Award. It was an excellent movie, but still not as good as the book. (less)
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4.14  · 
Rating details
 ·  17,926 ratings  ·  336 reviews

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Jeffrey Keeten
”But he still dreamed of it, could feel the cold night wind in his face, could smell the onions in the field.”

 photo 1c15a570-abbf-4150-a53d-01d54b10c77c_zpsx2c8xqn1.png
Jimmy Smith is on the left, and Gregory Powell is on the right. The detective to the far right needs to try not to look so gobsmacked at historic moments like this.

It was a routine traffic stop; a 1946 Ford coupe with the tag light out was pulled over by Officers Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger. If the occupants of the vehicle had just played it cool and not let their guilt from their
Doug Cummings
Apr 16, 2008 rated it it was amazing
I read this as a young cop and again after I had been a crime reporter for a good long time. Each reading gave me chills. Having attended many police survival courses and pulled many car stops, I can relate to the experiences of the officers. Working a one-man unit in the middle of the night when you're twenty-three and carefree is one thing. Looking back on it from an adult's perspective many years ago, I'm surprised I never visited an Onion Field of my own.
Jan 30, 2009 rated it really liked it
First published in 1973, The Onion Field covers the story of the brutal encounter between two LAPD cops and two career criminals in, well, an onion field. I won't go into the outcome except to say the criminals got the best end of the deal, especially when the death penalty was struck down in California. Compelling reading, even the tedious courtroom scenes unraveling with their own grim, ironic dramas. Wambaugh's early writing, such as this nonfiction title, is generally regarded as his better ...more
Robert S
Aug 22, 2010 rated it it was amazing
The Onion Field by Joseph Wambaugh

The Onion Field tells the true-life story of two young Los Angeles Police Department detectives who are kidnapped by two robbers in 1963, and the subsequent ordeal of all four men.

The book is structured like an episode of television’s Law and Order - the first half of the book focuses on the crime, while the second half focuses on the numerous, protracted criminal prosecutions that follow the incident.

Wambaugh raises important questions about the purpose of the
Sep 11, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: good-true-crime, 2017
This is a book of two halves and writing styles. The first part is an In Cold Blood-esque non-fiction novel. Beautifully written and in my opinion preferable to the former mentioned book. It follows the background stories of the four main characters leading up to the night of the onion field. The second half is the long and complex legal aftermath, which is written in the standard true crime narrative with court transcripts.

The first half is an easy five stars. The writing is pure excellence, o
Feb 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
Two young cops pull over two thieving sociopaths, and the murder of one shatters lives for decades to come.

This is a classic -- a must-read for true crime geeks. The only buzz kill for me was in the dragging pace that consumes several areas of the book.

A solid 4 stars out of 5.
Jun 22, 2016 marked it as to-read
Shelves: true-crime
I tried reading this once when I was in high school and ended up donating it.

I'll try again now that it's only $1.99 on Amazon.

Mar 27, 2014 rated it did not like it
I couldn't make it through this book due to its poor pacing and rampant homophobia. The character development is excruciatingly focused on one character's bisexuality and how that is a major influence of his criminal behaviors. The author's perspective on this disgusted me and the pacing of the book was so poor that when I thought about those two factors, I just put the book down instead of continuing. The story is disjointed and very sluggish.
Shirley Revill
A true story that sent shivers down my spine. I read this book ages ago and I ought to read again to see what I make of this book today. Thought provoking.
Rebecca McNutt
An odd and mysterious story taking place in the heat and dust of Los Angeles during the early Sixties, The Onion Field is a completely unforgettable crime novel.
Katherine Addison
This book does, in fact, deserve to be a classic. Like In Cold Blood, it's something between true crime and a novel; like In Cold Blood, it's an account of a vicious and senseless murder; unlike In Cold Blood, one of the victims survived. That, in fact, is what sets The Onion Field apart from almost all the true crime I've read: just as much as Wambaugh is telling the story of the murder and the story of the ghastly theatre de l'absurde that was the endless trial-and-appeal, trial-and-appeal, of ...more
Carol Storm
Jun 17, 2017 rated it liked it
True crime classic about two small-time punks who manage to get the drop on a couple of tough LA cops. The tragic aftermath sees the surviving cop spiral into guilt-ridden addiction and despair, while the two hoods actually thrive on Death Row, outsmarting the system through patience and persistent legal maneuvering and ultimately drawing life imprisonment instead of execution.

Watch for the movie featuring a very young James Woods as the creepy cop killer. It was his debut performance and it sp
Mary Ronan Drew
Jan 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Joseph Wambaugh was a young officer in the Los Angeles Police Department when the 1963 incident occurred that he later turned into a nonfiction novel called The Onion Field. Two young plain clothes cops on patrol, Karl Hettinger and Ian Campbell, made a routine traffic stop. The young men in the vehicle kidnapped them and took them to an onion field in San Bernadino and murdered Campbell. Hettinger ran for his life across the field and only his happening on a man out working in the dark saved hi ...more
Aug 10, 2015 rated it liked it
Not my favorite True Crime book. It felt like it dragged on longer than the story had steam, partly because the trial was so long and crazy. The author does a great job of outlining the characters and overall it was a fairly interesting and terrible tale of the abduction and execution of police officers in Los Angeles in the 60s. But parts of the way the book was structured and paced bothered me, with little interludes from an unnamed (until the end) character and often important revelations in ...more
Jul 19, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, crime
This book was a bit of a surprise. It was a recommendation from years ago and on a whim decided to listen to the audio version. I didn't even know it was a true crime story. The story as told is much more than just a crime novel. There is a tremendous amount of backstory about each of the primary participants. Joe Wambaugh writes a superb account of the trials and overturned rulings. It's really amazing how the system was manipulated by the two felons. The story is heartbreaking - that it took a ...more
Brendan Reid
Feb 26, 2013 rated it it was amazing

This book takes place back in 1963. The first half of the book goes describes the four main people. It describes where they grew up, their parents, sisters, brothers, and what kind of personality each of them has as well. It makes you feel like you know all four people really well by the time you get half way through the book.

Two of the main men are petty thieves trying to make it day to day by robbing and scamming. The other two men are police officers. The two thieves driving around town look
Bonnie E.
Jan 21, 2012 rated it really liked it
I read this many years ago but I still remember how vividly the story unfolded, and how the pages drew me in and ultimately wrung me dry. It is a harrowing recounting of a true event. The author's experiences as a police officer lends credibility to the book, and Wambaugh's writing style is powerful and gritty. This was the first of many of his books that I read over time. Joseph Wambaugh quote: "The Onion Field made me a real writer. And then I knew it was over, I couldn't be a cop anymore."

Dierdra McGill
This was a true crime book where a police officer got killed. The book was very well written and never boring (as a few true crime books I've read over the years can be) some parts were very hard to read, as in gave me a strong emotional response, but then again those are some of the best books that can do that.
I really don't want to give any of the book away, if you enjoy true crime books I recommend this one!
A true story, this tale as told by Wambaugh finds two young robbers encountering two young policemen, in an onion field. The fatal shootings evolve into one of the longest and most convoluted trials in California history. It is a fascinating and tragic story - a real parody of crime and punishment. An excellent read.
Sep 26, 2012 rated it it was amazing
To me personally, this book is comparable to. "In Cold Blood". Very well written and keeps you reading. I couldn't put it down sometimes. Just a great book, true crime fan or not.
Feb 18, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: true-crime
A canonical true crime book that's more important than it is enjoyable. Can feel a bit homework-y at times when you realize a) it was written by a cop who hadn't written nonfiction before and b) it was being written as the story was unfolding so Wambaugh is building the road and driving on it at the same time.

If you want to know where true crime writing in America came from, you must read this. But read it alongside In Cold Blood and Fatal Vision and Stranger Beside Me to help it go down a bit
Stephen McQuiggan
Dec 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Two police officers are brought to an onion field where one is executed. The trial becomes the longest in Californian history as the question of just who fired four bullets into Officer Campbell is dissected in the minutest of detail. Written in the form of a novel, it contains all the pathos you'd expect from fiction - although fiction may well have been kinder. That fateful night in the onion field destroyed the lives of all involved -Ian's murder, Karl's gradual sink into depression and petty ...more
Aug 06, 2007 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
True-crime "nonfiction novel" very much in the In Cold Blood mode, especially in how the relationship between the two killers is perhaps the most interesting aspect. Rough going, at first, as Waumbaugh has to rely on his rather florid prose stylings (and stilted recreated dialogue) to establish and evoke character (and his moments of judgment, in various matters of police and legal procedure, are so obvious that you wonder how selective he was in his inclusion and exclusion of information), but ...more
Sep 20, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Just a devastating book. Just so sad. There's so much about this book that just defies explanation. All at once it examines America's sometimes defunct legal system, psychological effects of traumatic events that go unexamined or forced down, men who feel they are "instutional men," the inner workings to two sociopaths, and so much more. Hard to believe this all actually happened, and I think after reading this I wish it was a fictional novel. I'd rather believe that events like these don't happ ...more
Jeanette  "Astute Crabbist"
I read this way back in the 80s. Don't know why it's not on my page here. It was the first Wambaugh I'd read, and I think the only non-fiction I've read of his. None of his novels have ever impressed me the way this true story did.
BLUF: Good for those who like to know the background of all players and enjoy true crime that reads like a novel.

Plot: The Onion Field is a nonfiction account of the kidnappings of Officers Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger and murder of Ian Campbell by Gregory Ulas Powell and Jimmy Lee Smith. Powell and Smith kidnapped these two officers after being pulled over for looking suspicious. After a long night and an incorrect assumption about the California’s version of the Little Lindbergh Law (later
David Quinn
Aug 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
I'll start with my complaint because it pertains to the whole book: the author stays on storylines too long. (The background material on Ian Campbell, Karl Hettinger, Gregory Powell and Jimmy Smith and the scenes with John Moore and Irving Kanarek would have greatly benefited from more aggressive editing.)

The great strength of the book is the incredible detail of the crime followed by its aftermath on the participants. The clearly did his research and possibly had a professional connection to th
Christy Buhr
Oct 12, 2011 rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: Bored prisoners
Recommended to Christy Buhr by: Goodreads
Shelves: quit-mid-read
This book was disgusting. I read true crime but not necessarily the "theatrical" true crime books. This one was dark and the language was offensive and I couldn't even catch the story at time because I was so bothered with the wording and prison phrasing. I'm not easily offended, and I can look past language, but by 125 pages I threw it in the garbage. Sad, because I really wanted to know more.
Jan 31, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Great true crime story.
Larry Bassett
I think this author has a goal of writing literature rather than murder/police stories. The major characters in this book are written about in great breadth although I believe the author was aiming for depth. The first third of the book is extensive background on the two crooks and two police officers who come together in that onion Field.

I am not sure if it is the words or the audible reading that is of the highest quality. This book has no heroes. Every character in the book has deficits and v
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Joseph Wambaugh, a former LAPD detective sergeant (1960-1974), is the bestselling author of twenty-one prior works of fiction and nonfiction, including The Choirboys and The Onion Field. Wambaugh joined the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in 1960. He served 14 years, rising to detective sergeant. He also attended California State University, Los Angeles, where he earned Bachelor of Arts and M ...more
“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. never to walk your own cultivated furrows. And the memory dangled over his heart like the sword of Damocles.” 2 likes
“No, policemen were not danger lovers, they were seekers of the awesome, the incredible, even the unspeakable in human experience. Never mind whether they could interpret, never mind if it was potentially hazardous to the soul. To be there was the thing.” 1 likes
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