Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets

A few years ago I joined a book club. Not one of those new-fangled Internet discussions groups, but a real-life, old-school book club, where participants gather monthly, eat pita chips, and grudgingly confess to not finishing the novel.

Occasionally the other members are even so foolish as to let me pick the book. Such was the case with this month’s selection, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which I chose for three reason: (a) Neven Mrgan recommended it as part of my 2011 Booklist Project, (b) it is written by David Simon, creator of The Wire, and (c) we desperately needed a non-fiction book as a counterweight to the “contemporary fiction” we have gnawed through thus far in 2012.

The “Year in the Killing Streets” subtitle is literal (well, the “year” part is; no one is killed by a street), with David Simon joining the Baltimore homicide division on January first of 1988 and chronicling their actions for 12 months straight. In this respect Homicide presages the “do a crazy thing for a year” genre so popular as of late, although shadowing a bunch of cops came natural to Simon: he had served as a crime reporter for the The Baltimore Sun for a number of year prior to the project. And Simon is not the focus of the book. Indeed, he fades effortlessly into the background, never once referring to himself while reporting on the force. He does so (as explained in the afterword) by dressing like the detectives, behaving like the detectives, and essentially doing everything short of explicitly identifying himself as a member of the homicide department. As a result, the book is a true “fly on the wall” account, with the reader cast as disembodied spirit, hovering on the edge of the crime scene and eavesdropping on everyone.

If you’ve seen The Wire or NBC’s 90s-era police procedural Homicide (for which this served as the source material), you are already familiar with the tone and cadence of the book. Simon classifies Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets as “narrative non-fiction”, which is to say that it reads more like a novel than a criminology textbook. This is accomplished by including copious amounts of dialogue, using narrative arcs as framing devices, and focusing heavily on the “characters”. And, of course, the very premise of the book–a “year in the life”–lends itself to the format, as the passage of days propels the story forward.

Simon picks a few cases upon which to focus, updating readers as to their status over the course of the year; interspersed are shorter vignettes: of “dunkers” (crimes that are solved almost as soon as the cops arrive on the scene), of “stone whodunits” (cases that lack even a trace of usable evidence), and of the officers when they are simply lounging around the office, killing time during an overnight shift. Occasionally shoehorned into the calendar are essays on a variety of tangential subjects. One sidebar discusses the wide-spread fear amongst police departments that interrogations would become useless after Miranda warnings became required, and Simon recounts the many psychological ploys officers subsequently adopted to coax suspects into waiving their rights. Simon documents a criminal trial during another lengthy aside, to show us what happens to these cases when they leave the homicide department and enter the courthouse.

Homicide was not our book club’s most popular selection. The host quit 150 pages in, decrying the repetitiveness of the crime scene descriptions. Another member was unable to attend our meeting, but sent her summary of the book via email:

The topic and characters were interesting enough for an hour or two in front of the TV, but I really did not need to spend countless hours reading a 600 page book. On the other hand, if I ever get pegged for homicide, it will be nice to be prepared for some of the interrogation techniques.

And yet, for all that, we had one of our most interesting and engaging discussions. We talked about the discrepancies between the cinematic portrayal of homicide detectives and those found in the book; we discussed our experiences on jury duty, and how they informed our opinions of the legal system; and we wondered what the two books I have thus far selected for book club said about me. (The first was Columbine by Dave Cullen, another work of narrative non-fiction in which a lot of people got shot. Hm.)

Personally, I found Homicide rivetting, every bit as engrossing as The Wire. It kept me up late on many a night, both the reading of it and the mulling of it over. Fans of David Simon or police procedurals will find plenty to like here, as will anyone interested in a fascinating, exhaustive, and often unsettling portrait of how murders are truly investigated … and sometimes solved.

P.S. Next Monday we’ll we’ll be discussing our next book, The Sisters Brothers, which I read in three days. I liked it quite a bit, and not only because people got shot.

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6 comments.

  1. I have to admit to never having watched Homicide or The Wire (I worked hard to avoid them because I couldn’t afford to add another hour drama to my life and I knew I would get addicted).

    Reading this reminded me of one of my favorite narrative nonfiction books of all time: Hot House by Pete Early. He spent time in Leavenworth prison, interacting with prisoners and guards and wrote their stories. It’s fascinating.

    Homicide is going on my to read list (I’m more willing to commit to books than tv shows).

  2. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets is one of my 10 desert island books. If you liked that, try The Corner for an even bleaker picture of inner city Baltimore. Sadly, those are the only two books Simon’s written, I believe. His show Generation Kill got me reading the book by Evan Wright, another really interesting non-fiction writer. One last suggestion: Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden.

    There are lots of people getting shot in all of these, aren’t there?

  3. I was a big fan of Homicide: Life on the Streets and had looked out for the book for a while (and had much more success when I found that the book had a different title, although still not easy to find in Australia)

    It was quite sobering to stop and realise when reading that it is a work of NON fiction.

  4. The Sisters Brothers was one of my favorites from last year; I’m glad you liked it, too.

    As far as the real meat of this post, I’ve got nothing.

  5. Liked the show Homicide, but I didn’t realize there was a book behind it. Must not have been paying attention to the credits! Anyway, now I’ll have to see if I can locate a copy at the library!

  6. An extra good bonus part of reading that book is that Simon wound up casting a bunch of the real cops from the book and putting them in The Wire as random one or two-line characters. A ton of the non-actor detectives in the show are the detectives from the book.

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