Book Review: Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets

That fact that my copy of Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets got battered in the post is quite poetic. It is a gritty, hard-hitting story.

David Simon who would go on to produce hit TV series The Wire, spent 1988 shadowing the homicide squad of Baltimore Police Department whilst on sabbatical from his job as a reporter at The Baltimore Sun.

It is quite simply, a stunning example of immersive journalism as Simon gets under the skin of the detectives, the suspects, the lawyers, the witnesses, the medical examiners, even the receptionists in one of the US’s most crime and drug heavy cities.

Generally speaking, few have little idea of the reality of such a department. Most analysis is purely theoretical or ideological, but Simon sees it with his very own eyes offering a perspective that would just not be possible in any way.

The realities become very clear, the fact that cops don’t like juries, because finding one good man is hard enough, finding twelve, in the same place at the same time, well that’s a “miracle”. That’s rule nine of the Homicide Lexicon, 10 informal rules which Simon mentions every so often.

The physical and emotional danger facing the detectives is very real. There’s a section on the shooting of officer Gene Cassidy, who is left permanently blind whilst his wife is pregnant, then there’s the rape-murder of 12 year old Latonya Wallace, which sees much of the book’s focus.

Rookie detective Tom Pellegrini is the primary on the case and is pushed to mental breakdown, obsessed with solving the case, which in turn impacts on his physical health.

The detectives all generally possess a dark sense of humour, but Simon shows how they have to, because if you can’t laugh, the reality would just be too depressing.

Simon admits in his epilogue his presence wasn’t initially appreciated, and due to the fact he was sometimes covering a combination of shifts that lasted 36 hours, he often feel asleep. The detectives in the squad would take Polaroids of themselves sticking their fingers outside their zippers and putting them near his open mouth before plastering it in his office.

He was also there during the gruesome dark cases the department faced that year.

However, he battled on and even 30 years later, this book remains endearing. Homicide detectives are under appreciated for the gruelling mental and physical requirements of the job.

There was a case where a detective notice a clean shaven smart looking sailor with a ragged looking bearded man. When the sailor was found dead, it took hours to close the case. Newspapers put it down to just luck, but as Simon explains, this was down to really good analytic skills.

The reality shown on this book, of the bleak desolate row-houses of Baltimore and the men and women who have made it their duty to protect the people within is a powerful one and is made possible due to excellent narration from David Simon. A definite must read.

Rating — 5/5 Stars

Next text to review: The Plague by Albert Camus