Before The Wire

A review of Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon

"I mean, we're the homicide unit, the murder police, the highly trained investigative elite who always get their man"¦""Careful," says McLarney, "You're giving me an erection."

I came to Homicide after watching all five magnificent seasons of The Wire on DVD. And if you haven't seen that series, do yourself a huge favor and check it out. Homicide : A Year on the Killing Streets was written by David Simon while he was a newspaper reporter for the Baltimore Sun. Published in 1991, the book chronicles a year he spent observing the work of the homicide unit of the Baltimore police department. During that time, he watches and reports on the full range of procedures that the police follow when they investigate a homicide.

The initial investigation of the crime scene, the search for and interviews of witnesses and suspects, the forensic examination of the bodies done by the medical examiners and the role of the investigating officers during the trial of alleged suspects are looked at in a variety of cases, including one where a suspect is shot by police, and another where a police officer is the target of an attempted murder. In between and during case investigations, we're also treated to the behind the scenes workings of the unit, the personalities and politics that are part of any organizational structure. And it's not always a flattering portrait.

Simon brings to the work a reporter's eye for detail mirroring the polices' own attention to detail and near obsessive compulsion to trying to figure out a clue, from the months long investigation into the rape and murder of a young girl, to one detective trying to understand why the shoes of a supposed murder victim werepositioned under the wrong feet of the hanging corpse.

Simon also reports the gallows humor that the investigators share amongst themselves. A willingness to joke about some of the obscene brutality they witness that's somehow made more tolerable by their attempts to find humor in some ghastly situations. Those attempts at humor are a safety valve to release the pressure of the job that exposes them to the worst aspects of humanity-- which will occasionally override their professionalism as they contemplate committing some violence to the father who brutally murdered his two-year-old son then carelessly attempts to lie his way out of responsibility for the hideous crime.

That police professionalism does not always prevail as Simon wryly alludes when he opines "Police brutality? To hell with that. Police work has always been brutal; good police work, discreetly so." Not exactly a comforting thought. But understandable, given the context.

It's a pretty good piece of journalism, but at over 500 pages, it's probably more than can be digested easily. The style of writing that works for a feature article in the Sunday edition of a newspaper or perhaps a magazine article becomes pretty ponderous after a while. And while a full year of covering this kind of story allows for an examination of the workings of the unit in all kinds of weather and a variety of situations, it also ensures that the "story" can't include a happy ending. Not while people are still killing each other. As Simon lapses into prose towards the end of the book, he notes "The world never stops calling for a little dignity, a little propriety, but the cops never stop calling for the morgue wagon; between the two lies an abyss that can never be bridged."

So, not a ringing endorsement for the work, I regret to say. It's a fine piece of reporting, but that doesn't always make for an enjoyable read. But, I say again, check out The Wire on DVD. I've watched all five seasons twice. It's that good. (Yeah that's where I've been-- sue me) You can also check out the television series based on this book (all seven seasons) here.


Such a timely review with Simon's MacArthur grant award!

Yes. How exciting was that? Here's an interview with Simon about what he plans now.