Before Treme, Generation Kill, The Wire, The Corner, and (obviously) before the TV show Homicide, a little known Baltimore Sun reporter named David Simon wrote a book called Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.
The book, taking place in 1988 and first published in 1991, details the year Simon spent shadowing a police homicide squad in Baltimore. Homicide gives a fascinating, disturbing insight into the horrors these detectives witness every day.
What is remarkable about the book is how invisible Simon is throughout. It’s one thing to write classic journalism when you’re writing a few hundred words on a crime, picking up details second- or third-hand, quite another when you spend a year in amongst it, on the crime scenes, in the back of cars driven by detectives, no doubt being engaged by the people you’re reporting on. There would be no shame in tickling your ego by mentioning yourself in the context of the book. If I had written Homicide, I’d be the main character in it, noting every wisecrack I made and funny thing I did (which wouldn’t take up much space). Notice it took me less than 300 words to mention myself, Simon doesn’t do it once in 600 pages.
He does allow himself some flourishes, the occasional moment of style, particularly towards the end of the book, but those moments are rare. His real talent is in how economical his writing is. Despite Homicide’s length, it could have easily been twice that. The amount of detail is incredible. Simon details the cases, and the techniques and mindsets used to investigate them, but he also covers departmental politics, and gives an insight into the lives of many of these detectives.
In Simon’s show The Wire – many years after Homicide – two characters had a preferred drinking spot, overlooking train tracks. The choice of location is symbolic but Simon has neglected to explain the meaning. I took it as a symbol that what the detectives do won’t matter in the grand scheme of things; that events will happen regardless, and all they’re doing is being brave enough to stand in the way of an unstoppable freight train. There’s a sense of that in Homicide. This is inner city America, 1988. Crack cocaine has arrived, murder rates are increasing, as is citizen apathy and witness reluctance. These detectives see an increasingly violent future for Baltimore that, despite their collective efforts, they’re powerless to stop.
Yet, even with the train’s lights in the distance, they still stand on the track.