[5 October 2006]
It’s the kind of access reporters dream of, and the kind of book that makes those same reporters think to themselves, “That’s what I would write, given the chance.” In January of 1988, Baltimore Sun beat reporter David Simon started an unprecedented assignment by parking himself in the break room, unmarked sedans, and the crime-scene-taped and blood-spattered sidewalks which were the stomping grounds of the 36 detectives who made up the city’s homicide unit. He stayed with these men for an entire year—what today’s journalists might call being embedded—and then in 1991 published what he witnessed in the book Homicide. As novelist and kindred spirit Richard Price says (referencing Damon Runyon’s dictum that all great reporters get that way by just “hanging out”) in his new introduction to this 15-year anniversary reissue of a book that has since become regarded with something close to religious devotion: “Simon didn’t just hang out; he pitched a tent.” And as detective Terry McLarney puts it in a new afterword, “He became the proverbial roach on the wall, soaking it all in while we were too busy fending off murders to calculate our behavior in his presence.”
To account for the enlivening intimacy of Simon’s sprawling and brawling narrative of dropped bodies and low case clearance rates, one must look to his long-term ubiquity on the scene, as compared to the writers currently churning out scripts for the hour-long cop dramas currently filling the network airwaves. In short: a police (as the Baltimore homicide cops refer to themselves, as in “real police”) is going to act differently around an interloper hanging around for ride-along over a few nights then he is around someone like Simon. That’s not to say that they come off any less heroic here than on your standard cop show, but they are inarguably more human.
Viewers can chuckle along with the CSI investigators making bad puns over another grotesquely disfigured and soon-to-be autopsied corpse, but when these detectives trade gallows humor over a stone whodunit (department terminology for a case likely never to be solved), it seems less like entertainment and more about keeping despair at bay. Because between the paperwork, extreme lack of car chases and shootouts, a city budget that doesn’t allow for decent unmarked vehicles or air conditioning before August, the job is anything but glamorous:
Most certainly, there are no perfectly righteous moments when a detective, a scientific wizard with uncanny powers of observation, leans down to examine a patch of bloody carpet, plucks up a distinctive strand of red-brown Caucasoid hair, gathers his suspects in an exquisitely furnished parlor, and then declares his case to be solved ... The best homicide detectives will admit that in 90 cases out of a hundred, the investigator’s saving grace is the killer’s overwhelming predisposition toward incompetence or, at the very least, gross error.
This is not to say that Homicide is simply a cold slog of realism and frustration. While being the anti-Law & Order in many ways—you just don’t know what’s going to happen with these murders, if they will catch the murderer of 11-year-old Latonya Wallace (found in February and an instant “red ball” case, otherwise known as one of the “murders that matter”)—the book is nevertheless an unabashed ode to crime detection, and realism or not, there are still some genuinely thrilling moments, given more punch by the fact that they are so few and far between. It’s with stone relief that one reads about a moment of simple intuitive genius like that shown when a detective who’d been agonizing over a series of suspect photographs, wishing to God that one of them was blonde as the witness said, finally realizes something: one of them has dark hair but blonde eyebrows; he’d dyed his hair to avoid recognition. It’s a small and easily overlooked detail, but one that turns out to be the difference between an unsolved case and a clearance, one small moment of grace amidst the endless grind.
That same moment was rightly harvested for the first episode of the 1990s fictional TV show based on the book, which tarted up the material to some extent brought a semblance of realism to a genre long rooted in Hill Street Blues melodrama or Miami Vice cartoonishness. Simon would later write for the show, using it as a training ground for his later, much greater accomplishments with HBO landmarks like The Corner and The Wire, which have practically redefined the standards for televised drama. Although his purview in those later shows expanded from the law enforcement side to all sociopolitical facets of the modern American cityscape, his greatest affinity always seemed to remain with the cops. Why? They have the best stories, like the one Simon tells in Homicide about some detectives in an equipment-deficient district of Detroit who were upbraided for occasionally using a Xerox machine on suspects unintelligent enough to recognize that it wasn’t, in fact, a copier and not a lie detector. Is it strictly kosher in a Miranda sense? Of course not. But even Simon, a card-carrying leftie of the highest order, at least respects the oh-the-humanity humor of such a tale.
Did Simon go native? Absolutely, but after a year in the shoes of these benighted laborers in Baltimore’s streetlamp-lit slough of despond, hanging out with fish-out-of-water aristocrats like Manhattan-raised Harry Edgerton and badgering, indefatigable workhorses like Donald Worden, it would be the rare reporter who wouldn’t. Sure the pay is lousy and the respect measurable by the centimeter, but these are men (and women) who not only tend to love one of the worst jobs on God’s earth, but to actually talk like the better crime fiction has trained us to believe cops actually talk, like Det. McLarney editorializing on a longtime fugitive multiple murder suspect: “You shoot a guy, hey. You shoot another guy—well, okay, this is Baltimore. You shoot three guys, it’s time to admit you have a problem.” This is perhaps all writers can ask at times of the thin blue line, that they on occasion live up to our fictionalized impressions of them. The detectives of Homicide do just that.