One of the principle rules of any society is to not kill another. Ancient religions and governments preach and rule against it. It seems like a natural impulse we can all collectively abide by.
But we don’t.
This breaking of a societal covenant happens everyday, every hour, and every minute somewhere around this little blue marble we all call home. Many thoughts have been spent trying to understand this phenomenon, which seems unique to our human race among all the species present here. One book does delves into the how, why, and wherefores of this most heinous crime.
This treatise on murder is a thick tome called Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets, a massive 646 page volume jam packed with facts, thoughts, truths, and skullduggery. And that is on both sides of the law. During a newspaper strike in 1987, Baltimore Sun police reporter David Simon wanted to kickstart a pet project of his. He sought unfettered access to the Baltimore Homicide Squad for a full year, and despite some objections inside the unit, the brass rubberstamped the idea. Simon began 1988 trailing detectives around all aspects of their job. Crime scenes, autopsies, interrogations, deliberations, and arrests all became fodder for this tale. Throw in a huge whack of inter-office and inter-department politics, and you have a true dramatic tale of Shakespearean proportions.
Simon finished his time studying the unit, then proceeded to spend the next two years pulling the narrative threads together. One particular murder, a brutal unsolved killing of a precious little girl named Latonya Kim Wallace, became the backbone of the book. Evidence and suspects are gathered by the diligence detectives, feverishly working the case, but to no avail. The man they believe was the culprit does not break during questioning. We find out in the afterword the alleged has passed away in the intervening years, with the cloud of suspicion still lingering on. Guilt is never assigned by Simon, just the messy facts of an always imperfect process completed by always trying imperfect people.
This case is systematic of so many showcased by Simon. We all believe the gathering of incriminating evidence by proven and true police will inevitably lead to the guilty confessing their sins. But the reality is messy and complicated and not for the squeamish. Some murders are slamdunks, easily solved within hours or days. Others are stone cold whodunits, that stick out for months and years and eventually transform into cold cases. A common denominator for an astonishingly large majority of both these types is the incessant drug trade. The decision of why one person kills another are shown to be varied, with some appearing almost reasonable while others deranged and devoid of logic. The face of humanity the homicide detectives are exposed to and occupy is not pretty or polite. The search for truth they are engaged in plunges them into murky territory quite often.
Simon probes past the individual cases as well. Underlying issues that infect the lives of the detectives everyday with every killing are examined. The role of race, the drug trade, the distrust of police, the flow of red tape that entraps their prowess, all pollute the end goal of avenging the innocent. Quite often the police know who committed the atrocity, but lack that one piece of crucial evidence or testimony to assure conviction. Many, many murders fall into this catch-all. And it is infuriating to the officers. Clearing a killing, changing it from red to black ink on the famous dreaded “Board” which tallies all the deaths, is of paramount importance. But it is not just to right a wrong. No, the upper ranks must be pleased. These officers who serve and protect from offices high above have to answer to an even higher power, the city council. This chain of power cannot stop the deaths and mayhem, they can only catch the guilty in order to reassure the public that all is well. All this falls onto the mantle of these brave centurions of truth. It is no wonder some only stay for awhile in the department, while others are just finishing up their second divorce.
This toxic stew of difficulties made day to day life in the homicide unit very arduous. Simon captured those feelings throughout the book, which propelled it’s notoriety when it was released in 1991. Immediately Homicide was shopped around as a media property, eventually landing on television. From 1993 to 1999, NBC was home to the adaptation called Homicide: Life On The Street. A huge critical success but never a ratings one, the network pulled the plug on this award-winning classic show, then aired a finale movie in 2000 featuring the entire cast in a sweeping storyline. During the run of this very faithful version, they enjoyed multiple crossovers with Law and Order, all in an effort to goose ratings.
Producer Tom Fontana brought the book, with it’s own unique language and rhythms, from the page to the screen. Homicide the book started with a child murder and Homicide the show also started with a child murder. Adena Watson was the death that haunted the mirror-like reality of this show. And doggedly investigating this case were two of the main detectives amid the ever changing cast of officers. Pembleton and Bayliss were the focal point quite a few times, but so many other great characters, virtually all based on real people, populated this fine series. Det. John Munch proved so well liked that he was gently transported onto Law and Order SVU after this show ended. However, some felt the revolving nature of the cast of Homicide hurt it in the long run. This might have been true, but having detectives come and go was also in keeping with reality. And Homicide, for the most part, was dripping in reality. Stories from the book, coupled with events in the headlines made this show a fixture of truth for viewers. Even set pieces like “The Box,” the room where suspects were interviewed, and the already mentioned “The Board,” completed every scene they were in. Everything about Homicide screamed verisimilitude. You were in the squad room. You were at the murder site. You were there. Until it all inevitably ended.
When Homicide did die, the thoughts and ideas it put into motion continued on unabated. David Simon had already completed his second book, this one made into a television movie called The Corner. This time he examined the life of drug dealers and the world they exist in. This combined with his earlier Homicide work to form a brand new entity. Hence the wondrous and amazing The Wire was born. Many fans including myself consider this show the spiritual and direct sequel to Homicide. And despite the loud protestations of one of The Wire producers, it most certainly is.
Thanks to David Simon and his amazing documenting of a year of murders, we all can now have a better understanding of the how’s and why’s of this seemingly basic human dysfunction. A simple rule of good decency and civilization that has been broken and violated since the dawn of time. We also now understand the flipside, the story of the good people who are always trying to unravel the riddle of who did what to whom and why. So much of human nature is encapsulated by Homicide, the book, the television show, and the concept. David Simon gives us a guided tour of it all, in the guise of the streets of Baltimore.
But this could really be anyplace, anywhere, anytime. Because Murder is Murder.
P.S. All Homicide images are copyright 2012 to NBC. Book cover is copyright 2012 to Henry Holt and Company.