I’m still waiting on the list at the library for the DVD set of first season of HBO’s The Wire, acclaimed far and wide as the greatest television show ever. I caught the first two episodes in syndication on BET, but annoyed at how much they had to edit out the naughty language, I knew I had to bite the bullet and wait for the real thing. While I’m waiting, I read the very hefty Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon, producer of The Wire as well as the TV show Homicide: Life on the Street. Simon, as a reporter, spent the whole of 1988 as a fly on the wall in a handful of inner-city Baltimore homicide units. The result is one of the best looks inside a police department I’ve ever come across.
And I’m glad I ran across it. Homicide falls solidly into what has become a very fashionable genre: narrative non-fiction, books recounting fact but have the feel and the dialogue of a novel. Devil in the White
City, Seabiscuit, and Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers are other examples, all of them solid bestsellers. I wouldn’t call this a true crime book, as it’s short on lurid CSI-ish details and is written from the point of view of the detective as a regular guy trying to do a difficult job under extraordinary circumstances. I instantly knew how influential the book is because I can tell that every cop show on television in the past twenty years has cribbed furiously from it. Of course, these cops were real, so they’d eat Sipowicz for lunch.
Simon doesn’t just look at the cases the detectives deal with. Often, piecing together the evidence and nabbing the bad guy isn’t enough, as one of the detectives goes on a legendary multi-week murder-solving spree but has rotten luck at trial, losing his cases in court. Simon also gives us a look at the interrogation room, where detectives have to somehow finesse people into talking to them when every reasonable sense screams that there should be a lawyer present – it’s a strange tightrope walk that these people have to do every time they get in the box. Detective work, even though it’s glamorized in mystery novels and television shows, is one of those jobs that demand the impossible on a daily basis and it takes a certain personality to do it effectively. Simon takes us into that familiar yet foreign world and gives us a look behind the fiction.