David Simon’s HOMICIDE is based on lengthy firsthand observation of the Baltimore Police Department’s Homicide Unit. A reporter for the BALTIMORE SUN, Simon took a leave of absence to spend 1988 as a “police intern.” For a full year, he followed a shift of homicide detectives as they investigated crime scenes, interrogated suspects, dealt with the department’s chain of command, and responded to one another as coworkers. The result is a unique, powerfully evocative documentary which successfully conveys the harshness of the homicide detective’s job and of our own society.
The main appeal of Simon’s book, his first, lies in the direct access it provides to the detectives and their work. By removing himself from the narrative entirely (with the exception of a brief concluding author’s note), Simon places the emphasis on the detectives themselves. Readers get to see the job as the detectives see it. We are made to feel the satisfaction of a successful murder investigation involving a “real victim” as well as the frustrations of such a case when no suspect can be uncovered or there is an inadequate legal case against a likely suspect. We experience the cynicism which accompanies the average drug murder and are exposed to various intricacies of the court system (including juries), the importance of “clearance rates” as a management tool, and the combination of high tech jargon and street slang which colors the homicide detectives’ language. We are enveloped in the racial tension endemic to so much police work in American cities.
Simon’s book is not flawless. Some analytic sections—for example, that on the Miranda Rules—are more wordy and pretentious than they need to be. Also, Simon’s style wavers from time to time as if he cannot decide whether to remain dispassionately journalistic or to launch himself toward greater literary heights.
Neither of these negatives amounts to anything, however, when measured against the book’s feat of making readers feel; as though they personally had experienced “a year on the killing streets.”