My intense fondness for the HBO Original Series The Wire inspired me to pick up the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon. Although Homicide more directly influenced the NBC show of the same name (which admittedly I’ve never seen), it is what started Simon down the path that eventually resulted in the creation of my favourite TV series. As the head writer for The Wire, it seemed reasonable I would enjoy his first book on the real life Baltimore homicide detectives.
Unlike most other ‘true crime’ type books, Homicide does not follow one single case, one particular murder or killer. In fact, the book is not even really about the crime itself, although that provides a foundation for the contents. What Simon has given us is a special window to the detectives themselves, both as individuals and as a department. It’s about how they work, from the crime scene to the interrogation, their uniquely dark sense of humour, the politics of the homicide unit, socially and more literally. It’s a great angle, and one that makes the book feel unique in a genre where it could be lost in a sea of thousands of similar books.
To write the book, Simon shadowed city homicide detectives for a year; the book is completely non-fiction unlike the shows that resulted from it. We get clear accounts from the police desks, to the streets, to the interrogation rooms, to the courtroom. The detectives are real, the cases are real, the dialogue is honest quotes. Some of the cases are solved during the book, but many of them remain open even today, a sad reflection of the realism of the book. Although old enough now to assume that much of the information within is antiquated, I still felt it was an insightful look into the job.
I found myself recounting some of the stories to other people. One of the more interesting stories from the book is what Simon writes about after he finished his work with the Baltimore police when a new policy was instituted forcing department transfers every few years under the guise of preventing boredom. This change not only dismantled the homicide unit (and surely other good teams within the police force) but also destroyed one of the finest tools a homicide detective uses to solve cases: experience. Baltimore’s crime rate was already high and rising with drug-related violence, but had previously had a case clearance rate better than the national average. After this change, the amount of cases successfully solved decreased drastically. It was a very sad discovery to hear in light of Baltimore’s infamy for having a terrible homicide rate.
Simon has a great writing style that really draws the reader in so they feel like they are standing alongside the men as they read. It’s dark and — to use a cliche — gritty, but very engaging and always interesting. The personalities and backgrounds of the detectives themselves are described in detail, but never boring or overdone. People normally adverse to non-fiction will probably enjoy that despite the fact the book does not have a singular “plot” to it, it reads very much like a novel. It has lots of dialogue, is full of amusing anecdotes, and the homicide cases Simon chooses to highlight are all very fascinating ones that could be told stand alone. Fans of The Wire will appreciate recognising stories and characters that were fictionalised in the show, but someone who has never watched it will not feel as if they have missed out.
Homicide is a great read for anyone interested in reading about the police force, how murder cases are worked, for fans of either TV show, people who love reading True Crime, or people who just wanted to read about Baltimore’s struggle against violence.