A second look at Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, by David Simon
Few books can claim to have spawned one of the greatest TV shows ever; David Simon’s Homicide has spawned two. When fellow Bookgeek Simon Appleby reviewed it in 2008, he did so through the prism of ‘The Wire.’ Before ‘The Wire’ though, there was ‘Homicide: Life on the Street,’ which ran for seven series on NBC during the 90s.
While ‘The Wire’ had its roots thematically in Simon’s book, ‘Homicide: Life on the Street,’ was the perfect screen adaptation of this towering true crime text. In an era where cop shows were marked by shoot-outs, car chases and neat little investigative packages tied up with string, ‘Homicide: LoTS’ was the real deal, showing the unending, grinding, senselessness of homicide investigation. Mr Appleby waxed evangelical about ‘The Wire’ in his review; please, allow me a moment’s digression to do likewise on the subject of ‘Homicide.’ It has humour, compassion, and authenticity by the boatload, and is as addictive as any cop show ever broadcast. Of course, if the TV show was blessed with such abundant brilliance, it was only because of the fidelity with which it was adapted from the original text.
The story began in January 1988, when a young journalist at the Baltimore Sun, disillusioned with his paymasters’ burgeoning preference for profit over quality, took a year’s leave to shadow the Baltimore PD’s homicide unit. As he reveals in one of many addenda incorporated into Canongate’s reprinted version, Simon’s presence was initially unwelcome. Detectives curtailed conversations when he appeared, and questioned the wisdom of the brass’ decision to turn him loose on the unit. However, ultimately the often Herculean (and indeed Sisyphean) task of catching killers left detectives ill-equipped to dissemble, and within a couple of months, the mask fell away completely. The unit’s resulting candidness, combined with Simon’s truly meticulous recording of events, allowed Simon to create one of the great works of true crime; a book with not a single-redundant passage across its 650 small-print pages.
The cast is enormous, with upwards of twenty players, but to make this more manageable, Simon hones in on three in particular. A diverse trio, they are iconoclastic black detective Harry Edgerton (that’s Frank Pembleton to fans of the TV series), an avowedly thorough investigator who wilfully isolates himself from the rest of the unit; quarter-century serving department veteran Donald Worden (Stanley Bolander), perhaps the finest detective in the squad, and Tom Pellegrini (or Tim Bayliss), a relative rookie pushed to the brink of physical and mental collapse by the year’s most harrowing case.
Anyone with a passing knowledge of American law enforcement knows the clichés; cops enjoy jaded humour, punishing hours, and regular harassment from their ivory-towered chieftains. Homicide confirms as much, but Simon has far too much affection for his subjects to present their lives as mundane. As he says towards the end of his tome -
“What kind of journalist follows human beings for years on end, recording their best moments and their worst, without acquiring some basic regard for their individuality, their dignity, their virtue?”
And so, instead of tired tales about marriages suffering as absentee husbands work cases, we have Simon’s vital account of Tom Pellegrini’s investigation into the Latonya Wallace murder. At first horrified by the savagery of the crime, and hounded by superiors, Pellegrini works twenty hour shifts hunting Latonya’s killer. Months later, his revulsion long replaced by obsession, he revisits the crime scene again and again, hoping for a clue to appear, having somehow survived the elements, waiting for him to find it. He repeatedly brings in his best suspect for interview, locking himself in a war of mental attrition with the man, ultimately extending the interrogation long past the point of its having any utility in the courtroom.
Instead of insensitive crime scene hi-jinks, Simon gives us Sergeant Jay Landsman, who used a Quaker Oats box covered in tinfoil as a radar gun, flagging down motorists and sending them gratefully about their business without issuing a ticket. He tells the tale of a detective diagnosed with diabetes, who enters the squadroom to find a whiteboard dividing names into two camps – those who care whether he dies, and those who don’t. The name of his credit union tops the “do” list, his wife’s name tops the “don’t.”
Instead of a grizzled chief dispensing arbitrary abuse, we have Commissioner Thomas Frazier, a bureaucrat whose noble ideas reveal themselves to be destructive and asinine when translated into policy.
While Simon is utterly meticulous in terms of detail, he refrains from drawing any hard and fast conclusions as a result of his work. Indeed, both the overarching narrative and its composite parts seem to suggest that no answers indeed are possible. Not every bad guy is caught, not every caught guy is tried, not every tried guy is convicted, and not every convicted guy is even bad. Murders are often defined not by motive but senselessness; police work is not so much a pure battle of wits as it is an attempt by detectives to pit the skills they have against the capriciousness of the cosmos.
To be deterred by Homicide’s bulk is counterintuitive. Its size is its strength; it offers value for money which has few rivals, combining abundant detail with prose which, at worst is exceptional, and at best is perfection -
“His victim was working out on Payson Street, selling baking soda to junkies at $10 a cap – an act of unrestrained capitalism guaranteed to bring a man more enemies than can ever be put to good use.”
In one sentence, Simon tells the tale of an urban murder, paints it against a backdrop of macro-economics, makes an ethical judgement on society, and rounds off with a wry philosophical flourish; pure poetry.#
Overall, Homicide is truly a modern non-fiction classic, and is essential reading for crime fans both fact and fiction. Its passion, relevance and humour are undiminished by two decades since its release, and indeed through its televisual offspring, it is a literary gift that has kept on giving.