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Review: ‘Homicide’ by David Simon

Review: ‘Homicide’ by David Simon post image

Title: Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets
Author: David Simon
Genre: Narrative nonfiction
Year: 1991
Acquired: Bought
Rating: ★★★★½

Review: Earlier this year Boyfriend and I spent several months watching straight through all five seasons of The Wire. When we finished, I felt totally adrift and wasn’t sure what to do with myself except spend more time with the police of Baltimore by reading Homicide — a chronicle of the year David Simon spend shadowing detectives of the Baltimore Police Department.

At the time Simon was in the department, every three days two people were murdered in Baltimore. Although each of the detectives in the department has time being the spotlight, there were really three who stood out at the center of the story:

Donald Worden, a veteran investigator; Harry Edgerton, a black detective in a mostly white unit; and Tom Pellegrini, an earnest rookie who takes on the year’s most difficult case, the brutal rape and murder of an eleven-year-old girl.

It’s impossible to read the book and not think of the television show, especially since both focus so heavily on the impact institutions have on individuals. In Homicide, you don’t ever get an in-depth look at the structures outside of the police department, but Simon does show how mandates like a certain percentage of cleared cases and doctoring the numbers to look better (“requests” that come from on high) impact how detectives can do their work.

Homicide is a bleak book and meanders a little bit, but it also shows off Simon’s writing chops. There are these beautiful sections where he steps out of telling the stories of detectives and just plays with the narrative. It’s hard to see out of context, but this section might give you an idea:

This is the job:

You sit behind a government-issue metal desk on the sixth of ten floors in a gleaming, steel-frame death trap with poor ventilation, dysfunctional air conditioning, and enough free-floating asbestos to pad the devil’s own jumpsuit. … You answer the phone on the second or third bleat because Baltimore abandoned its AT&T equipment as a cost-saving measure and the new phone system doesn’t ring so much as it emits metallic, sheep-like sounds. If a police dispatcher is on the other end of the call, you write down an address, the time, and the dispatcher’s unit number ona piece of sctratch paper or the back of a used three-by-five pawn shop submission card.

Then you beg or barter the keys to one of a half-dozen unmarkedChevrolet Cavaliers, grab our gun, notepand, a flashlight and a pair of white rubber gloves and drive to correct address where, in all probability, a uniformed police officer will be standing over a cooling human body.

You look at that body. You look at that body as if it were some abstract work of art, stare at it from ever conceivable point of view in search of deeper meanings and textures. Why, you ask yourself, is this body here? What did the artist leave out? What did he put in? What was that artist thinking of? What the hell is wrong with this picture?

I’m sort of a crime show junkie, so another huge part of this book that I loved was the way it made me look at those shows differently, particularly their reliance on trace evidence (which in real life never helps) and confessions (which rarely actually happen). The reality of police work in Baltimore is pretty bleak, but an addicting read. If you’re missing a fix of The Wire or have an addiction to crime chronicles, Homicide is worth spending time with.

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

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  • Natalie ~ the Coffee and a Book Chick July 17, 2012, 7:20 am

    I’m pretty sure that one of my favorite TVs show called “Homicide: Life on the Streets” and was on one of the big networks was based off this book. I remember watching it in the ’90s and loving it. If you’re a crime show junkie, then you should definitely Netflix it. I remember those earlier episodes in the first few seasons as pretty amazing. When I went back home (I’m from outside of Baltimore), I walked past the building that they used for the precinct and it was a pretty cool, nostalgic feeling.

    • Kim July 17, 2012, 7:34 am

      Yep, “Homicide: Life on the Streets” was the first show David Simon did based on all of his time in Baltimore. In my copy of this book, there are some photos of the actors who played the various detectives, which was fun. I haven’t watched it yet, I got the sense that it was a little more procedural than “The Wire,” but I’m glad to hear the endorsement!

      • Natalie ~ the Coffee and a Book Chick July 17, 2012, 7:53 am

        Oh, sheesh. I read too fast and missed the reference to the TV show. See, this is a lesson to take my timmmmee. I would say the show is not as procedural as the book is; I remember it being pretty dramatic and gritty which was a tough thing to do for a non-cable show at the time!

        • Kim July 17, 2012, 11:03 am

          Nah, I didn’t mention “Homicide: Life on the Streets” in the review itself — I actually forgot about that one until you mentioned it! I mostly know David Simon from “The Wire” which is what I was thinking about as I read, but that show is a little more removed from this book, I think.

  • Steph July 17, 2012, 2:18 pm

    Tony isn’t really one to get effusive about tv shows, but after watching just the first season of The Wire, he declared it the best tv show ever made… so, when we finally make it through the series and he goes through withdrawal, I think I’ll know what to get him! (And perhaps we should check out Simon’s first tv show as well!)

    • Kim July 21, 2012, 12:36 pm

      The Wire is definitely up there among best television shows. The boyfriend and I were pretty addicted to it.

  • bermudaonion(Kathy) July 17, 2012, 3:35 pm

    I think police work in general is bleak. It would be interesting to see what the police world is really like.

  • Jae @ Book Nympho July 17, 2012, 6:58 pm

    What a coincidence! My boyfriend and I just watched this entire series earlier in the year. He’d seen it twice already and said I just had to watch it and I’m SO glad I did! It was incredible! And I felt much the same afterward. Then I looked up books related to the show and found this one. It’s on my TBR right now but I’m holding off reading it because once it’s finished, I won’t have anything Wire-related to look forward to! But I can’t wait to read it! 🙂

    • Jae @ Book Nympho July 18, 2012, 8:01 am

      P.S. I just came across this Lego spoof of The Wire. It’s really funny so I thought a fellow Wire fan might enjoy it. 🙂 http://screen.yahoo.com/the-lego-wire-29977908.html?pb_list=f98d7405-694c-44f4-99c7-e6d7f1032375

      • Kim July 21, 2012, 12:42 pm

        Oh my gosh! The Lego Wire was awesome. Thank you for sharing that 🙂

        Simon actually has one other book that’s semi-related — The Corner. He wrote it with Ed Burns, I think one of the detectives from Homicide, who also worked with him on The Wire. I’m waiting on that one, although it’s on my shelf now.

  • Maphead July 17, 2012, 9:22 pm

    Ooooo, this sounds kinda good. Might have to put this on my list…

  • Stephanie July 19, 2012, 12:33 pm

    This sounds interesting! I’ve never seen the show. I can’t watch crime shows of any kind with my hubby, because he’s a police officer, and he’ll poke holes in the credibility of the program. *LOL*

    • Kim July 21, 2012, 12:43 pm

      I can totally see that. I’ve heard The Wire is one of the better portrayals of police work, but I’d be curious what a police officer thinks.

  • Jeane July 21, 2012, 10:49 am

    We lived in Baltimore for a brief time (a few years) and my husband was completely hooked on The Wire. Myself, I had trouble following it. I’m not much into crime shows. I wonder if I’d find this book more interesting.

    • Kim July 21, 2012, 12:43 pm

      It takes awhile to see where the show is going, and keep the characters straight. The boyfriend and I had to pretty frequent checks with each other to make sure we know what was going on.

  • Joe July 7, 2014, 12:14 pm

    I read the book after having watched the tv series. Huge fan of both. The book can be a tough read at times, at least my wife says so, and can be a bit dry, but worth the read.