Saturday, November 14, 2009

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

In Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, David Simon details the time he spent with detectives in the homicide division of the Baltimore police department and takes readers inside numerous murder investigations in one of the most violent cities in the U.S.

Simon does a great job of avoiding the sycophantic and lopsided treatment that many crime reporters give to the police forces that they cover. A desire to maintain access and the inevitable bias that comes from hearing about the scum of the earth that the police have to deal with generally gets most reporters onside.

But in some ways, coverage of a homicide department allows a more nuanced take and the potential for less speechifying and political rants. While the crimes are some of the most brutal, the police officers who become detectives and work in homicide are the best of the best. Sure, there is the opportunity for homicide detectives to stitch up an innocent person. But absent a false confession beaten out of a suspect, the necessary legwork has to be done, a suspect caught, and sufficient evidence collected before a prosecutor will take the case to trial and a jury will convict.

Fans of the TV's Homicide: Life on the Streets, which was based on this book, will recognize many of the detectives Simon writes about. Simon was also the creator of The Wire, and many of the characters from that show draw from the real-life situations and people that he writes about here as well.

As Stupid as They Come

Police deal with the scum of the earth, the most deviant pieces of filth on the face of the earth. And despite the well planned murders that we often see in books and cinema, stupidity from the small-time punks and hoods who slaughter each other is more common in the real world. As well as being sociopathic, nasty individuals, the murderers we read about here are some of the most brain-dead individuals on the planet.

In one passage, Simon details how all suspects being interviewed are clearly advised of their rights. Told in plain English that they have nothing to gain by talking and have the right to a lawyer. And then those same detectives spin a narrative in which they give an out to the simpleton sitting in front of them. The detectives tell the suspect, about whom they have no real evidence but know from experience, body language, and common sense that this is their man—they tell him that they sympathize with him. They know he had no choice because he was disrespected by the fool that he then had to murder.

And more times than you might expect, this appeals to a mulish bravado in the suspect and he agrees with what the detectives are saying. He gladly admits to the murder, confident that he has the respect of the detectives interviewing him. Sure, he's now going down for life, but he was punked! What's a brother to do? In the street narrative voice that Simon uses to great effect throughout the book, he perfectly summarizes the wasted lives and the absurd mentality behind the violence:
Get used to small rooms, bunk, because you are about to be drop-kicked into the lost land of pretrial detention. Because it's one thing to be a murdering little asshole from Southeast Baltimore, and it's another to be stupid about it, and with five little words you have just elevated yourself to the ranks of the truly witless.

Superb Writing

Simon brings detectives, perpetrators, and victims to life with a few deft strokes. And like all the best non-fiction books, the prose often reads better than most crime novels. The nastiness of the crime scenes are sketched out in dispassionate detail, and the dialogue crackles with authenticity. The dreary inner city landscape of Baltimore comes through in gritty passages in which Simon details the final resting place of numerous victims.

Simon also shines the light on the kind of gallows humour that police officers use to deal with the gruesome nature of their job. Marveling at the nasty ways that the human body can decompose, the detectives who come upon recent murders usually offer up a good one-liner or engage in some desultory banter that verges on the absurd.

That's one aspect of the great observations and details that Simon offers up—and just the kind of things that readers of true crime and crime novels will love to learn about. We also learn about the competitive aspect of solving crimes—not just between individual detectives, but between the different squads that work homicide. It's a sad glimpse at the fact that getting at the truth is not always the most important factor that drives an investigation forward.

The Weirdness

Remarkably strange occurrences surround many of the murder investigations. As the detectives track down the person who murdered a young black child, they come across what might be a lead in the case. They find a fingerprint on the library book that was found in the young girl's book bag. And, amazingly, they get a hit on the fingerprint in the database that contains thousands of prints of criminals who have been fingerprinted in the past. They get a hit on someone who had shoplifted the day before the fingerprint from the book was fed into the system. Had it been a day earlier, there would have been no return on the fingerprint.
Eight days after a police computer took his name in vain, Kevin Lawrence is brought down to the homicide unit, where he tells detectives that he knows nothing about any girl named Latonya Wallace. He does, however, remember a book about black American heroes with the title of Pioneers and Patriots. Shown the text itself, he can even recall the school report he prepared long ago using that same book, which he had borrowed from the Eutaw-Marshburn school library. The paper was on great black Americans and, as the young man recalled, it earned him an A. But that he says, was more than ten years ago. Why are they even asking about it?

The investigation that exonerates Kevin Lawrence is still wrapping up when Pellegrini returns to duty. But by luck or mercy or both, the primary investigator is allowed to watch from the periphery as other detectives slam into a wall. He is, in a very real sense, spared the anguish of seeing a precious piece of physical evidence reduced to fantastic coincidence—a fingerprint that sat undisturbed on a book for more than a decade, waiting for a million dollar computer to give it life enough to taunt a few homicide detectives for a week and a half.
In another surreal incident, two detectives seek the exhumation of a body from a paupers cemetery on the outskirts of Baltimore. It's part of an investigation into perhaps the most insidious individual who populates the gallery of freaks and killers in this book: a nasty, aging hag who for years convinced men to sign life insurance policies with herself as the beneficiary, and then later had them killed to collect.

Only after the autopsy on the exhumed body do they realize that it's not the person they were looking for. The feckless individual who operates the cemetery admits that he dug a mass grave and bulldozed in a few dozen bodies. The unreal aspect is that the body that was mistakenly exhumed had the same name as a suspect one of the other homicide detectives had recently arrested for a murder. The exhumed body was the father of the suspect. A bizarre and ghoulish coincidence.

The Frustration of Unsolved Murders

During the time that Simon followed the detectives in the homicide department, he was able to see some major cases develop and go to trial. He was also able to see the frustration mount regarding cases that weren't solved, and subsequently never solved years later. When a case can't be solved, there aren't hints at a criminal mastermind who managed to pull off the perfect crime. It is normally drug murders—the hardest of all murders to solve because they often take place outside, in a neutral location nowhere near the victim's or the perpetrator's homes. And because the body is outside, often at a different location than where the murder took place, there is no physical evidence. Those kinds of cases are a source of frustration for the detectives, simply because they bring down the department stats.

But when the victim is an innocent bystander or a child, a cold wind of frustration and despair blows as it becomes apparent that numerous factors conspired to allowed the perpetrator to get away with murder. The unknown perpetrator becomes a phantom who will often haunt a detective until the end of his days. Such is the case with the tragedy of Lantonya Wallace, whose killer was never found. It is when writing about the sad case of that little girl that Simon's writing is most effective:
It is the illusion of tears and nothing more, the rainwater that collects in small beads and runs to the hollows of her face. The dark brown eyes are fixed wide, staring across wet pavement; jet black braids of hair surround the deep brown skin, high cheekbones and a pert, upturned nose. The lips are parted and curled in a slight, vague frown. She is beautiful, even now.

She is resting on her left hip, her head cocked to one side, her back arched, with one leg bent over the other. Her right arm rests above her head, her left arm is fully extended, with small, thin fingers reaching out across the asphalt for something, or someone, no longer there.
Simon sketches out the characters in the real-life dramas that he witnesses as skillfully as great writers of fiction. And because of that, you empathize and get to know the detectives and feel for them when the pieces don't fall into place.

Within the police and crime reporting category, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets is truly one of the great ones.