TOP SHELF BOOKS — Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets

TOP SHELF BOOKS — Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets

What book did Michael H. just finish reading?


Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets
by David Simon

As you may have gathered, most of the books I read are fiction, because fiction is awesome and if you disagree you are an untrustworthy scamp. But occasionally a nonfiction book will catch my eye(s) and then it will take over my life. Jon Krakauer, Mary Karr, and Bill Bryson have all had this effect on me. The book you see above, however, ripped open my chest, scooped out my beating heart, played a game of hacky sack with it, sent it through one of those ovens you see at Quiznos, alternated dunking it in scalding hot and icy cold tubs of water, and then put it back in and closed up my chest with just enough life left in it to continue pumping.

If you’ve heard of David Simon it is probably due to The Wire – which Simon created and wrote – which is usually held up as the greatest TV drama ever (I subscribe to this school of thought). You probably didn’t know he started as a Baltimore Sun reporter working the local murder beat. In 1988, he took a year sabbatical from The Sun to embed with the homicide detectives in the Baltimore Police Department. That last sentence doesn’t even make sense in today’s world. How could a newspaper reporter take year off and have his job waiting for him when he got back? What on Earth was the Police Commissioner thinking letting a journo have unlimited access to detectives and their cases and their methods? Simon himself admitted in the appendix of the book that he had no idea how it all came together; only that it was worth it and he wouldn’t change it for anything.

Simon is a fantastic observer, and maybe even a better describer of what he has observed. You can imagine – there are some things in the book you couldn’t possibly imagine – what the writer was was exposed to following around murder police for a year. There were over 230 murders in Baltimore in 1988; Simon lays out quite a few in excruciating detail and background. It is nearly impossible to stop reading this book.

More than the description of killings, Simon has an unparalleled ability to relay to the reader who these homicide detectives are. Not just their methodologies or strategies, but why they do these things, what internal conflicts are raging, what drives them to hunt down some of the worst our species has to offer, day after day without end. The emersion is so complete that readers will feel like they could walk up to one of these detectives and engage in the inside jokes, throw out nicknames, and goad the new guy without any hesitation. Worden (“the last true detective in America”) and McLarney and Edgerton and Landsman and Pellegrini and Brown and Brown and Kincaid and Waltemeyer and Garvey and Nolan became so real to me that it is hard to convince myself I have never actually met them (I ripped those names off by memory; I am horrible with character names).

The morbid sense of humor, the walls built around their feelings and emotions, the coffee and booze and cigarettes – all the things necessary for these guys to stay sane, to hold onto a little bit of humanity, to see a future that is worth living – are all described so thoroughly and honestly that you can’t see how anyone could survive as a homicide detective without using each and every one of these safeguards or medications.

And then there is the cold reality of life on the killing streets.Of the countless souls that are just trying to make it to the end of the day without being murdered, or seeing a family member or friend murdered. Simon drives home the bleakness and nihilism of the Baltimore streets by pulling back the curtain and exposing the dark and malevolent underbelly of humanity. Sociopaths run rampant, “brain-deads” kill each other over video games, “simple motherfuckers” beat their girlfriends to death over nothing. And children are ignored and left to fend for themselves or, unthinkably, raped and murdered and discarded in back alleys or empty rowhouses.

It’s this last bit that almost made me put the book down for good. It hangs so heavy around your neck and destroys so quickly your hope for humanity that you are compelled to run away from the facts, from the truth of things that really happen to other people. That happen to innocent and defenseless children whose only sin was to be born in a horrible place at a horrible time. I can’t bring myself to divulge any of the details of these specific cases covered in the book (one solved, one still open to this day), but it’s debilitating to consider that these are just a few homicides from one year from one American city. Ignorance is bliss indeed.
I encourage you to read this book. Besides the fact that it is so well written and so thoroughly researched and so accurate (the BPD was given the manuscript before publishing and no changes were made), it makes real a world most of us have not one iota of a clue about. It will bring about immense respect and awe for what cops, and especially homicide detectives, have to deal with on a daily basis. And it will also expose you to the realities of life experienced daily by fellow Americans; not some “others” in far off third-world countries, but right here in our own gleaming metropolises. These horrors and grotesqueries will take up residence in your mind and nightmares. And you will try to refuse to acknowledge that they are real; that people, every single day, walk through a hell that rivals anything Dante could have imagined. And you will finish the book because these detectives feel like friends, and because it is the least you can do for the victims: bear witness.


by Michael H.


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