David Simon’s Homicide: Life On The Killing Streets

Homicide: A Year On The Killing StreetsI continue to proselytize for The Wire, the HBO television show created by David Simon, long-time Baltimore journalist, and Ed Burns, long-time Baltimore homicide detective and school teacher. Beginning with Baltimore’s drug trade – its dealers and users, and the crimes they commit – and quickly expanding to cover the failures of politicians, journalists and teachers, The Wire spent five seasons holding a mirror to a dying city, and it did it with unfailing compassion and honesty. Before The Wire, however, Simon released Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets, a work of “true crime” detailing his year following Baltimore’s homicide police to crime scenes, autopsies, interrogations and trials. Simon was given unprecedented access to one of America’s busiest homicide departments, which was confronted with an astonishing 274 murders in 1988, and the result is this insider’s look at the men on the front lines of this urban warfare.

The detectives of Simon’s homicide squad are rough men, which is to say that they speak their minds, crack jokes over dead bodies and spend their free time drinking and philandering. I am reminded of a quotation attributed to Orwell: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” That it is apocryphal doesn’t undermine its truth one bit. It takes a certain personality, after all, to confront human evil as part of a daily routine, and in Baltimore in the late 1980s, with the influx of crack, heroin and cocaine and the gangs eager to supply it, evil is in no short supply. This year alone sees the rape and murder of two young girls, the point blank, broad daylight shooting of a police officer who miraculously survives two bullet wounds to the head – though at the expense of his sight and sense of taste and smell – and “the Black Widow,” the name aptly given to a woman who seduces men into marrying her and naming her the beneficiary on their life insurance policies before discreetly ordering their deaths by hired hands.

But these hard-drinking, hard-talking men are not unlikeable. In fact, in their quiet devotion to what has to be characterized as an uphill battle, they take on a kind of noble quality. Arrayed against them are the forces of bureaucratic indifference: a police hierarchy and chain of command that rewards political gamesmanship rather than honest work; a public that views the entire force as corrupt and racist; politicians that pressure whole departments into manipulating crime statistics; and a wider society whose concern about crime and the urban poor can be summarized with the “out of sight, out of mind” aphorism.

What Simon offers, here and in The Wire, is a small glimpse into a world and a reality that is utterly foreign to most readers of the book and viewers of the show. It isn’t prescriptive, or condescending, or self-aggrandizing. It’s honest reporting from the front lines of an urban war, where the consequences of social policies are tangible realities. And, to borrow once more from Orwell, in times of deceit, truth telling is a revolutionary act.