Page count: 646 pages
“Homicide” is a documentary about the year (1988) David Simon, a former crime journalist with the Baltimore Sun, spent as a fly on the wall at the homicide unit of the Baltimore Police Department. The book chronicles the daily life of the detectives as they investigate a never-ending stream of new murders. The cast is an all-male squad whose principal characters are Worden, the veteran homicide cop who won’t stop picking on rookie detective Dave Brown; Tom Pellegrini, another rookie taking on 1988’s most publicised crime in Baltimore, the rape and murder of an 11-year old girl; Edgerton, a black detective and an outsider in the squad, but with a rare talent for getting information from black eyewitnesses and delinquents; and Garvey, who thanks his lucky stars for a winning streak allowing him to close a series of stone whodunits.
Like many readers of this book, I discovered “Homicide” and “The corner” (another documentary David Simon co-wrote with Ed Burns) through HBO’s “The Wire” and, feeling a genuine sense of loss once the dazzling TV show ended, decided to read the books. I started with “The corner”, an absolutely brilliant read, and therefore knew exactly what a delight I had in store when I went on to read “Homicide”: An insider’s tale of underpaid and overworked detectives, drug and gang-related killings, wiseguy gallows humour, office politics, and veteran cops breaking in the rookies. Not unlike many modern day crime novels, one might say. What sets this book apart from crime fiction, however, is the lack of “case closed” and happy endings; far from all murders go from red (open) to black (closed) and far too frequently known killers get away with it in court due to technicalities, the DA’s resource and reputational considerations, or juries expecting the kind of forensic wizardry that only exists on TV.
That said, the Daily Telegraph was spot on when they said “it reads like a thriller.” Indeed it does; despite being almost 650 pages long, “Homicide” is written with a drive and wit that keeps it from getting long-winded or dull. David Simon is a brilliant observer who doesn’t let his interest in and care for his subjects (because he clearly gets up close and personal with many of them) get in the way of depicting them the way they are, for better or worse, even if it means including the odd racist remark or snide comment about colleagues or superiors. This integrity lends a sense of reality to the story and made me feel like I was gaining new insights into the workings of society and human psychology. For me, that is what made this book every bit as fascinating and interesting as “The corner”, and yes, it really is as good as “The Wire.”