08 April 2008


I hope you all had a lovely weekend. As I mentioned I was in Savannah, but I felt as if I were half in Baltimore -- specifically in the stuffy confines of police HQ while I was reading David Simon's first book HOMICIDE: A YEAR ON THE KILLING STREETS. This book is an incredibly dense, incredibly detailed account of Baltimore's homicide detectives at work, and beyond them the state of the neighborhoods in which these crimes take place and the role of the detectives in the criminal-justice system. Simon is as I mentioned a former reporter, but he abandons the passive voice of the incident report for passages that present the big picture -- like this one, mid-book:
Summertime and the living is easy, says Gershwin. But he never had to work murders in Baltimore, where summer steams and swelters and splits open wide like a mile of the devil's sidewalk. From Milton to Poplar Grove, visible heat wriggles up from the asphalt in waves, and by noon, the brick and Formstone is hot to the touch. No lawn chairs, no sprinklers, no pina coladas in a ten-speed Waring; summer in the city is sweat and stink and $29 box fans slapping bad air from the second-floor windows of every other rowhouse. Baltimore is a swamp of a city, too, built on a Chesapeake Bay backwater by God-fearing Catholic refugees who should have thought twice after the first Patapsco River mosquito began chewing on the first pale patch of European skin. Summer in Baltimore is its own yielding argument, its own critical mass.

The season is an endless street parade, with half the city out fanning itself on marble and stone stoops, waiting for a harbor breeze that never seems to make it across town. Summer is a four-to-twelve shift of nightsticks and Western District wagon runs, with three hundred hard cases on the Edmondson Avenue sidewalk between Payson and Pulaski, eyefucking each other and every passing radio car. Summer is a ninety-minute backup in the Hopkins emergency room, an animal chorus of curses and pleas from the denizens of every district lockup, a nightly promise of yet another pool of blood on the dirty linoleum in yet another Federal Street carryout. Summer is a barroom cutting up on Druid Hill, a ten-minute gun battle in the Terrace, a daylong domestic dispute that ends with the husband and wife both fighting the cops. Summer is the seasons of motiveless murder, of broken-blade steak knives and bent tire irons; it's the time for truly dangerous living, the season of massive and immediate retaliation, the 96-degree natural habitat of the Argument That Will Be Won. A drunk switches off the Orioles game in a Pigtown bar; a west side kid dances with an east-sider's girl at the rec center off Aisquith Street; a fourteen-year-old bumps an older kid getting on the number 2 bus -- every one of them becomes a life in the balance.
What I love, not to get all English teachery here, is the specificity of what Simon is describing. It's not "one kid dances with someone else's girl somewhere" or "the first mosquito" or "an older kid on a bus" -- he roots it in the kind of detail that suggests all the stories he didn't have room to tell, the kind of texture that creates a world. Reading HOMICIDE it's easy to forget that Simon reported the whole thing by basically living in the detectives' offices, but in an afterword he estimates that he personally witnessed 90 percent of the conversations which appear in the book. That fact alone astounds me.

I highly, highly recommend this book for anyone who likes really good nonfiction and "CSI" and similar shows (though Simon demonstrates how they have ruined juries in criminal homicide trials). It doesn't require a very strong stomach although there are, no surprise, dead bodies on almost every page and cases ranging from sad to bizarre to horrifying. One that really stuck out in my mind was the Geraldine Parrish "Black Widow" case, which began as an extortion complaint from a young woman who had had two attempts on her life. The detectives were able to find out her aunt was behind the attempts, having taken out several life insurance policies on their nurse; the aunt, Parrish, was also married to five men who she was found to have killed for their life insurance benefits. Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it's also much uglier.

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