Friday, September 30, 2011

Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (1991)

Title: Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets
Author: David Simon
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
Price: Unknown (Bought to get Amazon order over the $25 mark for free shipping)
LCC:  HV8148.B22 S54 1991

I always was a man of hard work.
--Woody Guthrie

After the success of  The Wire, Generation Kill, and Treme, the work of David Simon needs no introduction. Simon has established himself as a TV auteur, a rare thing in an industry that likes to obscure all forms of individual authorship in favor of what Nick Browne once called the "super-text" of the nightly broadcast schedule. Like many, I've become obsessed with Simon's work and I decided to track down the book that helped launch his career.

Homicide: A Year of Killing on the Streets (1991) is a journalistic account of the year Simon spent embedded with Baltimore's homicide division. Because Simon describes the events of 1988 in roughly chronological order the book has a loose structure, but like a jazz piece, it manages to fill up a sometimes-wandering account with its own order and linguistic punch. Consider the following section where Simon describes the process of interrogation in the post-Miranda era of criminal investigation. Rather than merely describe the process from a journalistic or sociological point of view, Simon addresses an imagined suspect as he's being read his rights:

"Anything you say or write may be used against you in a court of law."
Yo, bunky, wake the fuck up. You're now being told that talking to a police detective in an interrogation room can only hurt you. If it could help you, they would probably be pretty quick to say that, wouldn't they? They'd stand up and say you have the right not to worry because what you say or write in this godforsaken cubicle is gonna be used to your benefit in a court of law. No, your best bet is to shut up. Shut up now.
Of course, for some, the joys of this book will not be the prose but the relationship the book has to Simon's subsequent media work. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets served as the basis for the NBC drama Homicide: Life on the Streets (1993-1999). The show aired on Friday nights and when I was in high school I watched it religiously up until its seventh and final season. Reading the book, it's clear to see how certain events that Simon witnessed as a reporter made it into the show. And one can also see how writing Homicide also gave Simon plenty of material when he developed the more successful The Wire, even if the HBO drama lacked the one-to-one correspondence of his earlier network effort.

Despite these joys of recognition, Homicide stands on its own as a celebration of mental labor. Simon celebrates the investigators he tails for their ability to solve murders, whether they put down a redball, a stone cold whodoneit, or the relatively easy dunker. Even when investigations come to a dead end, Simon can't help but to note the hard work and time that goes into a case.  Whether he's writing about the initial crime scene investigation, the art of interrogation, or the performance a detective gives at trial, Simon cannot help but to note the consummate professionalism of Baltimore's homicide division.
However, Homicide is also unquestionable a celebration of reporting. No work of journalism that takes a year's worth of reporting and tops out just under 600 pages can be anything but a monument to hard work. There is, perhaps, a natural affinity between the detective and the reporter who follows them. Both are essentially knowledge worker who seek to uncover the not-so-obvious truth. Although there are differences in their jobs, Simon demonstrates through the writing of this book that a reporter can work a story as hard as a detective can work a case.

Come on back next week for the second installment of the New Narrative Review.

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