Homicide: A Year On the Killing Streets

Forget Kojak and Columbo. Forget Ed McBain and Joseph Wambaugh, too. The real world of urban homicide cops features few car chases and shoot-outs, no clever murder methods, celebrity killings, or beautiful psychopaths. At least that’s the story in Baltimore, where reporter David Simon spent 1988 tagging along with 18 homicide detectives as they investigated about half the city’s 234 murders.

The truth in Homicide, as it emerges from Simon’s massive (599 pages) accumulation of grisly details and morbid ironies, is that homicide in Baltimore is a crude, numbingly repetitious phenomenon. Shooting, stabbing, bludgeoning: The choice of weapons is small. Much of the murdering is drug-related; nearly 90 percent of it is ”black-on-black.” Bodies in alleys, bodies in the trunks of cars, bodies pulled out of the harbor. The stories turn out to be much the same.

Wisely, then, Simon doesn’t just give us one horrific investigation after another. He breaks up the daily gore with sketches of some of the cops — like cosmopolitan loner Harry Edgerton, who’s widely resented for not being a team player, and Donald ”Big Man” Worden, a canny veteran who’s on the verge of burnout. Even more effective are Simon’s pungent essays, shrewdly spaced through the book, on key aspects of the profession. He calls the interrogation process ”contemptible” but ”essential” and shares the tricks of the trade: how to take psychological control, how to maneuver around those pesky Miranda warnings, how (and when) to fake sympathy or rage. He brings us to the department’s autopsy room, providing a neat analysis of the nonstop gallows humor — ”’Table for one,’ says an attendant, sliding a cadaver into an empty slot” — that keeps everybody in the business relatively sane. And there’s a savvy, cynical close-up of Baltimore’s court system, which sets most of the murderers free — either right away or within three years.

Also, Simon knows which of the dozens of cases here to single out for special attention. A double murder in drugland seems routine at first but culminates in a dandy courtroom drama. The killing of a car thief illuminates the city’s racial tensions. Above all, the book takes on much-needed shape from the agonizing case of 11-year-old Latonya Wallace, who was apparently held captive and molested, then strangled, mutilated, and dumped in an alley. While other cases come and go, the Wallace mystery remains, with always one more promising clue, one more suspect…and one more dead end.

Homicide is far from perfect. Simon’s narration — sharp and firmly centered for the most part — sometimes indulges in pulp sentimentality, sometimes strains too hard to be hip or sardonic. And this sprawling epic lacks the steady drama and in-depth characterization to be found in more narrowly focused true-crime books. But from the blood on the street to the repartee in the squad room, from autopsy etiquette to office politics, Simon gives us the homicide cop’s beat — monstrous, draining, bleakly fascinating — as it’s never been seen before. A-

Homicide: A Year On the Killing Streets
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