Book Review: Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, by David Simon

Omar knows what’s up. 

I only started watching HBO’s The Wire about a year ago, but damn if it isn’t as good as everyone says it is. I don’t really know why I waited to watch as long as I did, but I’m almost glad–I feel like I can appreciate its messages and subtitles better now that I’m a bit older and have more life experience. It also means that I can draw out my watching of The Wire to avoid having it end too soon.

Before I had even starting watching, I knew that it (and the show Homicide) was based in part on a nonfiction book by David Simon called Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. What I wasn’t prepared for was for how engaging and eye-opening the book was on its own.

Simon, a veteran journalist, was embedded in the homicide department of the Baltimore police force for a year, given unparalleled access to an elite group of detectives who were faced with a rising wave of murder due to the drug trade. The characters of Homicide are all real, with their own individual styles of speaking and solving cases, and were sketched for the reader with warts and all. Of course, that kind of truthfulness can be too real, sometimes. I was initially very leery of the sort of alpha male, macho atmosphere Simon presented us with, especially with the use of some racist and homophobic terms between the men. (We only meet one female detective, and briefly, though I certainly got shades of Kima Greggs from her.) But Simon is clearly committed both to depicting his subjects faithfully and ensuring that the stress and sometimes impossible demands of the job are evident. (And he succeeds. I walked away with a healthy respect for what these guys put up with.)

I loved the differences between each detective: Tom Pellegrini is the department’s newest addition, hard-working and eager to prove himself; Donald Worden is a veteran with a photographic memory and a history with the streets and the civilians living on them; Harry Edgerton is an urbane, New York-raised black detective who disappears for days at a time, working alone on his cases. There are familiar faces and names–Jay Landsman!–and characteristics, but even for someone who hasn’t seen The Wire, their individual journeys are engrossing and you care deeply about their successes and failures.

Simon also displays a true mastery of narrative and story-telling. It couldn’t have been easy to distill a year’s worth of homicides into a cohesive story, and yet he was able to structure the tale around one inciting (unsolved) case: the rape and murder of an 11-year old girl. Other cases are opened and closed as well, sometimes after months or years, but the emotional core of the story is Latonya Wallace. Pellegrini catches this case, and it takes a hold on him, driving him further and further in his attempts to solve it.

If you are a fan of The Wire, obviously this is a must read for a closer look at some of the Baltimore personalities who inspired McNulty, Bunk, Kima, and other favorites. But if you have any interest at all in true crime books, this is one of the standouts of the genre. It’s also an elegant example of a nonfiction book that doesn’t read like a nonfiction book. Just read it already–I promise you’ll like it.

Bookwanderer Rating: Four out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “Boiled down to its core, the truth is always a simple, solid thing.”
Other Reviews: The Omnivore, Crime Narrative, The Guardian     

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