Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets was David Simon‘s account of a year of homicide investigations in the city of Baltimore. Along with being his first book, it put Simon on the path into television, where he created some of the greatest shows in the history of the medium.
So before I begin, I should be up front and say that if you’ve watched the Wire then this book won’t really be too surprising. The show is a bit more focused and dramatized, and aims for a bit more direct resolution, but the same sentiments about the nature of police work and the relation between the law and the street is still there. That said, it’s still a well written book and something everyone ought to try.
Growing up in the late 80s in the DC Metro area, I was pretty familiar with the brutal death tolls Baltimore and DC used to rack up every year (and from what I gather, NYC used to put them both to shame). This book takes place right in the beginnings of the escalation of violence in “Body-more”, and does an incredible job of showing the cost that the killings have on the dedicated officers of the Homicide unit. Even the guys that have been solving murders for a decade are still occasionally hit with something awful that eats away at them, and even the most talented guys run into dead-end cases and maddening bureaucratic pressures. Heavy smoking and drinking coupled with the darkest gallows humor are the coping mechanisms, and the job takes a clear toll on everyone involved.
The best things that the book does is humanize the murder police and emphasize just how much gets lost in the shuffle in a city of 300 annual murders. The cops have developed their own language for their work, and even when their methods differ, they all teach each other and work from some basic premises to ensure some moderate amount of retribution for the victims. Even so, no matter how many 16 hour shifts and tag team interrogations they go through, clues get missed, witnesses lie, and the chain of command demands you sacrifice the case of the dead drug addict to focus on the more important victims. Beyond the inherent difficulties in solving the cases, there is a great divide between the police and the populace built up by decades of racism, brutality, class and culture. The homicide unit has to struggle with neighborhoods full of undereducated and recalcitrant witnesses, along with the political pressures of race relations, and the need to maintain the trust of the uniformed cops. It’s a book that has a lot of frustrating elements, made all the more infuriating by the knowledge that it’s all non-fiction.
If I had to criticize the book, I would say that Simon is perhaps too fond of the cops he worked with. Even when he’s critical of the men, it’s always in a very well meaning way. While I don’t doubt that the homicide unit has some of the most talented or dedicated detectives, I can’t imagine that there are a few men who aren’t cut out for the work or aren’t actually committed to the job. Even the men who wash out are always given the benefit of the doubt, booted from burnout or political missteps or personality clashes rather than incompetence or corruption. Simon also gives a pretty light treatment of the general population. I’m sure that ignorance and cruelty are a major issue in the inner city, but the book doesn’t delve much beyond the outward appearance to examine the complexities of growing up poor and black in West Baltimore. His work on the Wire and Treme would indicate that he has come a long way in seeing the issues from both sides of the power divide in the last twenty years. There’s also an incrementally appended author’s afterward that goes on for at least twice as long as it needs to.
The book is not poetic or particularly challenging in its prose. Simon has some clever turns of phrase, but most of the book is the blunt and matter-of-fact writing of a young journalist. It’s a fascinating book, and an incredible insight into the life and work of the murder police and the city though. If you don’t appreciate it for anything else, realize that it was the cornerstone in the development of one of the premier creative talents in television.