Before David Simon was writing and producing the Wire, the show frequently described as the great American novel of television, he was writing Edgar Award winning actual novels like Homicide. In 1987, Simon took a leave of absence from the Baltimore Sun to shadow and write about the Baltimore Police Department’s homicide division during 1988. For reference, in 2011, the homicide rate came in at 196, the first time in three decades Baltimore’s homicide rate came in at under 200.
1988 was relatively early in the rise of Baltimore’s homicide rate. And Simon, without even being aware of it, shows you how the BPD began to sag under the growing weight of the number of murders and how the detectives grew cynical. Because these increasing murders were basically unsolvable, occurring in neighborhoods with no witnesses at all, where were citizens rightfully skeptical of the police, where no evidence was left. The detectives solve just enough murders that they still incredibly hold on to a handful of hope, but the
There is not neat wrap up of the outstanding plot lines at the end of Homicide. The most politically intriguing murder and the most gruesome, devastating murder remain unsolved. And you feel the pain of the detectives at the fact those murders are still on the board, waiting. You feel the remorse seeping from the pages, you think back on the mistakes that were made by detectives, lab techs, filing clerks, and so forth, and you know that crime will probably be left unsolved. You feel the adrenaline when an anonymous tip comes in months after the crime or a new piece of evidence seems certain to lead to a suspect. It doesn’t. The detectives catch just enough breaks to hold on hope. But they also watch the cases that they eat, sleep and breathe go unsolved enough that hope seems…imaginary.
Aside from how engrossed I was, this novel had two of the best passages on crime I’ve ever read and if I ever in my post-law school career teach a class on criminal law (unlikely) they will be included. The first passage contrasts the legal provisions giving police officer’s discretion to shoot and kill a suspect they believe will cause them harm, with the shockingly (to me) minimal gun training police officers received at the time. The second is ten pages of straight dialogue between hypothetical detectives and hypothetical suspects that show just how meaningful the supposed legal victory of the Miranda rights really was in the 1980s (and probably today). A third passage on the autopsy process, and how the detective and medical examiner work together, was also particularly fascinating.
If you like the Wire, if you like mysteries, if you like thrillers, if you like true crime novels or if you have ever watched an episode of CSI or Law and Order and mildly enjoyed it – you will enjoy this book.
*Homicide spawned the similarly named groundbreaking television show. Simons joined the Homicide writing staff for four seasons. Ultimately, Simons partnered with former BPD detective Ed Burns to write another true crime novel The Corner, which HBO turned into a miniseries.
And then HBO gave them the chance to create The Wire, and the rest was history.