Rating: 4 Stars
This was a pretty engrossing fly on the wall description of a year in the life of the homicide bureau in Baltimore. Somehow, David Simon, at the time a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, managed, despite the protests of almost everyone, to get permission from the police commissioner to spend a year eavesdropping on the many homicide detectives. After first treating him with suspicion, ultimately they forgot about him and let him tag along on all of their activities, thus providing a very realistic view of the life of a homicide detective.
After several decades of real life detective series (including Simon’s own Homicide and The Wire), there probably aren’t that many surprises here. It’d have been interesting to read it when it first came out before all of these procedurals. Would it have been surprising? Would there be shock at the profanity, locker room antics of the detectives (according to later accounts, as a result of the book, at one time the Baltimore police leadership considered bringing all detectives in the bureau on charges of conduct unbecoming)?
Regardless, even though over twenty-five years old, it’s still an entertaining read. There were several items of note.
The detectives are truly prodigious drinkers. They drink until the bar closes, and then they go out to their cars to drink some more.
The bureau is an absolutely relentless testosterone club where men express affection for each other by brutal insults, cruel pranks, homoerotic jokes, and penny-ante extortion.
Like everywhere else, the detectives are surrounded by internal politics and bureaucracy. After the lieutenant’s murder rate drops propitiously, the detectives have to start filling in more paperwork and consciously cover their asses from executive oversight.
Murderers are, by and large, pretty dumb. There is the murderer who decided to leave the body in his basement. There is the murderer who called the detective and volunteered that he owned a gun matching the murder weapon. There is the murderer who gave a half-assed alibi, clearly not expecting detectives to actually follow up on it. I guess we can all be thankful that, by and large, criminals aren’t the masterminds that popular culture tries to tell us they are.
Murders ebb and flow. One night things will be quiet and then the next night several murders will occur. There will be runs where all murders are easily solved (dunkers) and then there will be another run where there’s just a dead body, no murder weapon, and no witnesses (whodunits).
Simon goes into detail on police procedures. He has an entire section on Miranda. The police originally thought that Miranda was going to cripple them. After all, after someone has explicitly told you that you don’t have to talk to them, who in their right mind would actually turn around and start talking? Most people, actually. The detectives have developed time proven techniques that allow them to get the suspect to sign the Miranda while at the same time encouraging them to continue talking.
The book centers for the most part on four detectives. There is Richard Garvey, an experienced gifted detective who has a most amazing run. For close to the entire year, every case he gets is pretty easily and quickly solved. Even in the cases of stone whodunits, where there is a dead body in the middle of nowhere, somehow someone will just amble up and mention that they happened to see the make and model of a car leaving the scene, and oh, by the way, would you like the license plate too? He keeps waiting for the Karma to turn on him, but by the end of the year, it still hadn’t.
On the other side of this is Tom Pellegrini. Although relatively inexperienced, he is a dedicated, dogged detective. He draws the violent murder of a young girl. Immediately this becomes a red ball case, which draws the attention of the press and the police hierarchy. Massive resources are pulled into this effort. Despite (or maybe because?) of all this, the case goes nowhere. Pellegrini spends most of his year working on the case, and as far as I know, the case is still open. Garvey and Pellegrini show that although it’s great to be good, it’s even better to be lucky.
The other two detectives are the most clearly drawn character studies. There is Donald Worden, the hardened twenty-five year veteran that is a cop’s cop with a photographic memory. He’s gruff and tough but with his cop intuition, his experience with Baltimore, and that incredible memory, he can close pretty much any case that he comes into contact with.
In contrast to that is Harry Edgerton. He’s also a brilliant detective, but he’s a loner iconoclast that simply has no interest in meshing with the other members of the squad. He’s perceived to be someone that looks out for himself and does not chip in to help when needed. Although he’s respected, he’s the subject of open derision and squad conflict, of which he seems not to care a whit. Edgerton and Worden show the broad range of personalities that can be successful detectives.
All in all, it was a good read. However, it did run a bit long and probably could have benefited by a tighter editing. Also, through no fault of its own, it is now dated. Simon spent 1988 with the bureau. Clearly, technology and probably (I’m hoping!) processes have improved since then.
Having said that, it was the detectives themselves, more than the violent crimes, that made the book an entertaining read.