Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, by David Simon
Of all the genres of book that I am sniffy about, justifiably or otherwise, true crime has to be right at the top of the list – as someone who reads books to escape, either in to the past, the future or to alternate realities, I have a hard time thinking of anything that I would like less than hearing the sordid details of what real individuals really do to one another (and yes, I know reading history could be seen in that light, but to me there’s a difference). On the other hand…
I LOVE The Wire, a television show that I recently heard compared, with plenty of justification, to a Russian novel. It’s bleak, it’s depressing, it’s intricate, it’s every superlative under the sun – having watched the first four seasons in rapt amazement, sympathising with drug dealers and disliking politicians, rooting for drug addicts and police alike, I think it’s the best thing that’s ever been made for TV (with the possible exception of Deadwood). If you haven’t watched The Wire yet, stop reading this review, go and beg, borrow or steal the Season 1 box set, and then we can talk.
Good, you’re back. So what I was saying was, when the opportunity to read and review a new edition of Homicide came along, I put my prejudices against true crime to one side, and jumped at the chance – because David Simon is the producer and one of the writers of The Wire, a show that might never have existed without this book. Once this book was made in to a TV show, the opportunities that opened up for Simon led him to creation of The Wire, so this is where it all started – and no wonder, because it’s absolutely bloody brilliant.
Originally published in 1991, Homicide has been re-published by Canongate with a new foreword and afterword by some of the cops featured in the book, and a new afterword by David Simon himself. Simon, a reporter on the Baltimore Sun newspaper, took a year’s leave to shadow detectives from the city’s homicide squad. The book tells the story of that year, 1988. At the time, Baltimore averaged roughly two murders every three days – but the men of the homicide squad (and they were exclusively men), the elite of the city PD’s CID division, also had to investigate suicides, suspicious deaths and police-involved shootings, making for a pretty heavy caseload. Simon follows the detectives out to the scenes of fresh crimes, and as they follow-up on all their active cases. It’s not gonzo journalism, because at no point during the story does Simon mention himself – but it is, ultimately, a sympathetic and thus subjective portrait of the challenge facing homicide detectives and the human cost of their job.
Homicide is subtly well structured to give us detailed insights into the investigative process, the role of the medical examiner, the nature of the court system, the internal police politics and much more, not to mention extensive explorations of the backgrounds and attitudes of the key detectives. For fans of The Wire, much will be familiar, though it does not do to overstate that; after all, the action here takes place nearly 20 years earlier, and is focussed solely on Homicide, while The Wire has a broader remit. Of course, times have changed too: modern Baltimore cops look back nostalgically to the murder rate of 1988, to a time when the perps did not have access to mobile phones and to a time when juries brought up on a diet of CSI-type crime shows did not have unrealistic expectations of what forensic science could achieve.
Homicide follows numerous investigations, including some notorious crimes, such as: the Angel of Reservoir Hill, the case of Latonya Kim Wallace, a young girl who was raped and murdered, her body dumped in an alley; a nasty police-involved shooting; and the unearthing of a seriously unsubtle Black Widow serial killer. Following the conclusion of the book proper, I was delighted that we got something I had yearned for as I was reading – an explanation from Simon of his methods and experiences, explaining how it was he was able to get so close to the action, and the extent to which his presence did or didn’t influence the actions and attitudes of the detectives. We also get a new afterword which explains his changing relationship with Baltimore, from the plaudits following the book and the initial TV series, through to the brickbats that came from the much more clear-eyed portrayal of The Wire. We also find out about the crossovers between truth and fiction, with detectives featured in the book giving names to characters on the TV shows, acting as technical advisors, or in the case of Jay Landsman and others, actually acting in the show.
I doubt there can be a better insight in to the demands that America places on its law enforcement community than this book; demands that are voracious indeed, stimulated by the avaliability of firearms, aggravated by the legacy of racial division and entrenched by the economic decline of rust belt cities like Baltimore. You have to take your hat off to the men and women who do what they can to get justice for the victims, without begrudging them their cynicism, their foul language or their hard living; these, more than the regulation issue .38s they carry out on the job every day, are their essential defences.