Thursday, 1 July 2010

Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets by David Simon

I felt like I needed a shower after finishing this. I read about decomposing bodies, vile apartments being searched for rusty knives and guns, overweight men drowning themselves in coffee and booze and obsessive, desperate hours spent pouring over old case files just hoping to get a break in that elusive case.

Yet I loved this book. The grimness of the subject matter, (and it is grim, the violence is all completely nonsensical and often completely avoidable) is lifted by the humanity of those who seek to avenge it.

You are probably envisaging a noble group of men who kneel beside murder victims and mutter "why? why?" but they are too busy doing their job to be noble about it. Solving murders is not a calling to many of them, it is a job that they do every single day, aspects of which soon become rote, like in any job.

David Simon shadowed a shift of Baltimore homicide detectives from the 1st of January until the 31st of December 1988. He followed them to their call outs, listened into interrogations and perused all the detectives cold case files. In the epilogue, the author expresses bemusement twenty years later that he was allowed such unstinting access.

It actually feels like he did more, that Simon is omniscient throughout the book. He describes the thoughts, motivations and frustrations of his detectives. We see it all.

There is the gore, the squeamishness of even some of the veterans in the morgue and the bureaucratic insistence on keeping the statistics up to scratch even if it means neglecting to follow up cases. We see the petty office frictions, the acres of paperwork that seems to overshadow the actual 'police work' and the sheer, mindless stupidity of many Baltimore criminals.

The detectives all feel differently about their jobs. Some, like McLarney and Worden are born cops who relish the day to day work of putting cases to bed. McLarney, in particular, is wedded to the force with fond memories of "racing up Pennsylvania Avenue with that blue strobe light show on top of the car and 'Theme from Shaft' blasting from a tape player on the front seat."

Others, like Pellegrini, whose year long battle to solve the murder of an eleven year old girl almost wipes him out, are decent detectives but don't seem to derive much satisfaction from the job.

I knew that this book was the source material for the TV series Homicide: Life on the Streets, but I didn't realise just how much the show drew from this book. The characters are loosely based on the real life detectives but the cases, techniques, banter, conversations with suspects and office politics appear almost intact until at least the fifth series of the show. It's that rich.

This is why the show is great. It is real and it is how it all actually happened and truth is stranger than fiction. Sometimes the producers, to please the networks, would throw in a love affair or an evil twin killer or a sniper attack on Baltimore, but the best scenes are taken from the book:

The female medical examiner is asked by a detective visiting the morgue "what's a lady like you doing in a place like this?" "Looking for Mr Right" she drawls as she sharpens a huge knife.

A dumb yet stubborn suspect is tricked into believing that a photocopier is a lie detector.

A detective is shocked out of his contempt for a filthy house full of murder suspects when a little boy who lives there tugs on the cop's sleeve and asks if he can go and get his spelling homework from his room.

An interrogator refers to himself as "a salesman selling a product that his client has no genuine use for. A life term jail sentence."

The one problem with all of this versimilitude is that everyone seems to have the same name. The real life contains far more coincidences  than a fictional author would allow himself. Nearly every other policeman is called Donald, two of the detectives in the same small squad have the same last name, two suspects for high-profile murders have the same name, murder victims share Christian names and surnames and the father of a  murder suspect is accidentally exhumed in the course of a completely unrelated case. It can get a little confusing.

The most striking thing about the book, however, is that, although these investigators of death have to numb themselves enough just to get through the job, it is the detective who can still retain his humanity and relate to people on the street who seems to be the most successful.

Pellegrini, who catches himself referring to eleven year old Latonya Wallace as "that broad" after too long reducing her brutal rape and murder to a bulging case file of photographs and reports, struggles with his case. In contrast, lone wolf Edgerton is not afraid to go out alone and talk to witnesses one on one instead of intimidating them with a trio of armed cops, and he has friendly relationships with informants, witnesses and street kids. Veteran of the department Worden, has a fatherly way of speaking to drug dealers and  the inhabitants of white trash 'billytown'. He treats suspects with calm respect. Both close cases.

Closing a case or turning a name on the white board from red to black is the main goal, regardless of whether one investigator has had a "stone whodunnit" of a drug murder and the other has had a "dunker" like a domestic dispute. The one that turns his name to black is, in the eyes of his superiors, the better cop. Numbers matter to the Captains, Majors, Commanders etc and police politics makes more of an appearance in the account than existential angst and grieving parents.

This seems wrong and is distressing. But it's the way that it happened.


  1. This sounds intense, but satisfying. It's frustrating to read about all the bureaucratic red tape involved but I guess that's the reality of the justice system.

    Great review!

  2. Thank you!

    I would guess that the red tape has only increased, sadly, things seem to be going that way.

    I would recommend this book, but only if you have a LOT of free time on your hands!