Review of Homicide by David Simon (1991, Canongate)
From January 1st until December 31st 1998 David Simon took a year’s sabbatical from his job as a journalist with the Baltimore Sun and hung out in the Homicide unit of the Baltimore Police. He went to work every day, just like the detectives, he visited the crime scenes, accompanied them on searches and stakeouts, eavesdropped on interrogations, sat in on criminal trials, and drank with them in bars until the early hours, all the while keeping his eyes and ears open and taking copious notes. The result is a Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, a detailed 650 page, small print, book that tells the story of that year - a year in which there were 236 murders in the city of Baltimore. Simon uses real names, he details the often fraught relationships between officers, documents the sometimes convoluted and vicious office politics, exposes the tremendous pressures that the cops are under from their bosses, the media, politicians and public, and reveals the sordid and dangerous lives of victims, perpetrators and those caught up in investigations. It’s a warts and all expose that shows the cops in both a good and negative light. It’s a brilliant piece of ethnographic research and an excellent read. Although organised by time, rather than simply write the book as a detailed diary, Simon used particular cases and officers to explore in detail various aspects of the job, crimes and judicial service, and moreover he mixes up the writing style and perspective to keep the narrative fresh. At times it reads like a novel, one that tries to capture the full complexity of police departments and cases. And even though it involves a large cast, it is easy to follow the dozens of threads and personalities. Which suggests that there’s scope for crime fiction that manages to be more realistic in its scope, cast, politics and drama. The book also provided a launch pad for Simon’s move into television, most recently as the writer and executive producer of The Wire. A fascinating, disturbing and excellent read.