Monday, August 12, 2019

53. Homicide: a Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon

After having finished Homicide, my feeling was that it is essential reading if you are a fan of detective fiction.  As lauded by the many reviews quoted on the cover of this 2006 re-edition, it is also essential reading for an understanding of America in the 20th century and who just likes great journalism.  Simon took a year-long leave of absence in 1988 from his job as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun and instilled himself as a "police intern" in the Baltimore Homicide division.  You don't really learn of his role until the afterword.  The author's presence is absent from the book and as he writes in the afterword, he mostly succeeded.

I had already read The Corner and of course seen The Wire, the latter of which strongly informed my approach to Homicide.  I was surprised to find that actually only small bits of Homicide are in The Wire.  This book is much more positive than I expected.  The detectives are poorly paid, the politics and hierarchy above them is annoying and the streets are brutal.  However, they love their job and they are really good at it.  The bulk of the book is just case after case, revealing the various detectives' methods, their interplay with the citizens, the other workers and especially with each other.  They don't all make it through but the good ones just keep plugging away, solving murders.  During the year the book was written, over 70% of the cases are solved, which was at the national average.

The hacking away at public institutions that defines the start of the 21st century (and the theme in Simon' later work) was just beginning to manifest itself in the late 80s.  In another afterword, we read about how the closure rate on the murders goes down in the following years (and the number of murders goes up). 

It took me a second try to get going on this book.  The first time, I was too distracted it seemed too long.  This time, I couldn't put it down and was kind of sad when it ended.  The detectives are such great characters (some of whom do show up in The Wire) and the cases each one so interesting.  Simon is a great writer, keeping it fast-moving and straightforward with a cynical and humorous edge that reflects the dark humour of the detectives themselves.  There were several laugh out loud moments.  And while the cases are all "realistic" and do not fit any neat narratives, they certainly were interesting and compelling, making me want to find out what happens as much as the best fictional cases.  Highly recommended.

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