#43 – Homicide, by David Simon

I’ve wanted to read this book for more than a decade. I doubt there’s many people left who don’t know David Simon—or at least who don’t know his work. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets was adapted into the award winning NBC police procedural called Homicide: Life on the Street, and on which Simon worked as a writer and (I believe) eventually as a producer as well. It’s also, in my opinion, the finest police procedural ever to air on North American television, and is my favourite television series of all time. This book was also mined quite heavily (by Simon himself) for HBO’s The Wire, the second best police procedural in all of North American television. The premise for this book, the first work of non-fiction I’ve read in something like a year, is simply this: it is the chronicle of a single year, in this case 1988, of the Baltimore Police Department’s homicide unit. I’m generally reluctant to read non-fiction for two reasons. First, I find that I’m not interested in the subject matter of most of the non-fiction that crosses my path (usually just whatever happens to be popular), and I’m not going to drag my ass through six hundred pages on a subject I don’t give a damn about. Second, and this is actually more important, because it keeps me away from books on subjects I genuinely am interested in, I find that non-fiction authors tend to pay far less attention to issues of craft than I would like, and as such I tend to find reading non-fiction edifying but not particularly pleasurable. Obviously authors of non-fiction are limited in what facts they can present, but they are less limited in how they choose to present those facts, and what sort of prose style they use. Most of what I’ve read progresses in the same way. The book opens with a hook, some compelling and unexpected fact or mystery that makes us want to read more. The hook is immediately followed by an extensive backtracking through background data that has no direct bearing on the thing that made us want to read on, but will provide it with much-needed context. Then we get some kind of suspense, in which we are presented with dead-ends or just enough data to bring us to the cusp of understanding the hook, but no closer. And then there is The Big Reveal, in which all is explained, followed by a rather deflating afterword in which the author explains in five pages what you just read a whole book to discover, and thanks a bunch of people who helped him (or her). The prose is usually clear, simple, and written in that matter-of-fact, small-words-only style that tends to mark the features section of most large newspapers. In other words, most of the non-fiction I’ve read is really fucking dull. It’s all research and no craft, no art, no presentation.

David Simon’s book is different. For starters, he avoids all the obvious routes for creating dramatic tension, the mysteries inherent in much of the casework. It would be easy to build an exciting book around the cases, but that’s really not the heart of what’s going in the BPD homicide unit, and Simon is smart enough to see that. He also avoids using blunt, artificial methods to create suspense. In fact there’s almost no suspense at all in the book. Simon will at times present us with a killer before we are presented with a victim. The reader also isn’t left chasing a hook through the whole book. There is no hook, in that sense. Homicide is arranged chronologically, and with a few exceptions (mostly made, it seems, to keep the book from being bogged down by too much happening at once), events are presented in the order that they occur. The simple fact is that this book isn’t about the glory and drama of police work. It’s not about the heartbreak or the crime or even the social pressures that create such an enormous and ever-increasing murder rate for such a small city. All of those things are in the book to one degree or another, but ultimately Homicide is about the job, and the people who do it.

This is actually why I prefer NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street to HBO’s The Wire. The latter is certainly more real. There’s cursing and nudity and the crimes are seen more fully in the context of the city. Even the board, that wonderful administrative tool/bludgeon, looks more like the one the BPD homicide unit actually uses. But it also has more action and suspense, more gunfights and car chases. It’s about the city and the various ways that institutions can fail and betray those they were established to serve. It is an epic work of social commentary. NBC’s Homicide, despite playing fast and loose with the reality of Baltimore, is still about the job. The detectives begin as thinly-veiled stand-ins for the ones in David Simon’s book, but gradually they grow and shift to become not only fine examples of what television can do with strong characters, but also various philosophical lenses through which to examine the nature of the job. The decontextualizing of the murders from the harshest aspects of the city itself serves as a reflection of the distance the detectives themselves have from the particulars of their daily grind. Just as only one or two cases ever truly touch a detective emotionally, only a handful of the cases in the show actually matter in its grand dramatic scheme. There is a difference, after all, between a murder and a killing.

David Simon manages to get the prose right as well. His writing is direct, uncomplicated without being simple-minded, and full of wit. This book, despite all the horror and outrage that it can elicit at times, can also be damned funny it its own slightly bent way. Just like the job. There is a magnificent section midway through the book on the role Miranda plays in interrogation. I won’t quote from it, because it must be read in full to be truly appreciated, and it is quite long. I will quote (extensively) from the author’s note near the end of the book, in which Simon discusses some of the ethical dilemmas he faced while researching the book.

Finally, a note on one last ethical dilemma. Over a period of time, familiarity and even friendship can sometimes tangle the relationship between a journalist and his subjects. Knowing that, I began my tenure in the homicide unit committed to a policy of complete nonintervention. If the phone in the main office rang and there was no one but me to answer, then it was not meant to be answered. But the detectives themselves helped to corrupt me. It began with phone messages, then grew to spelling corrections and proofreading. (“You’re a writer. Take a look at this affidavit.”) And I shared with the detectives a year’s worth of fast-food runs, bar arguments and station house humor: Even for a trained observer, it was hard to remain aloof.

In retrospect, it’s good that the year ended when it did, before one of the detectives provoked me to intervene in some truly harmful way. Once, in December, I found myself crossing that line—”going native,” as journalists say. I was in the back seat of an unmarked car cruising Pennsylvania Avenue, accompanying Terry McLarney and Dave Brown in their search for a witness. At one point, the detectives suddenly pulled over to the curb to confront a woman who matched the description. She was walking with two young men. McLarney jumped from the car and grabbed one man, but Brown’s trenchcoat belt became caught in the car’s shoulder harness and he fell back into the driver’s seat. “Go,” he yelled at me, still struggling with the harness. “Help Terry.”

Armed with my ball-point pen, I followed McLarney, who was struggling to get one man up against a parked car while the second eyed him angrily.

“DO HIM!” McLarney yelled at me, gesturing toward the second man.

And so, in a moment of weakness, a newspaper reporter shoved a citizen of his city against a parked car and performed one of the most pathetic and incompetent body searches on record. When I got down to the guy’s ankles, I looked up over my shoulder at McLarney.

He was, of course, laughing hard.

This is typical of Simon’s style, although he never has this much presence, or any presence at all, actually, outside of the afterword and the author’s note. He’s so removed from the narrative, in fact, that until he explains some of his techniques in the author’s note, it’s difficult to imagine just how a human being can be so completely removed from what he witnesses. This book truly is about the job, and the people who do it.

Homicide is a triumph, one of the finest and most interesting books I have ever read, and certainly the finest and most interesting non-fiction I have ever encountered. I feel close to this world now, in some way in sync with these men. It’s an illusion created by Simon’s exception skill as a journalist, of course, but all the same I feel sad that it’s over.

Next is Wildlife, by Richard Ford.


Writer. Editor. Critic.

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