Baltimore killings: A reporter looks at a year of homicide

BOOKS & AUTHORS

May 26, 1991|By James H. Bready

David Simon's Baltimore won't seem much like Russell Baker's or Hal Gardner's. In the books of those two earlier Sun reporters, the worst that can happen is for somebody to get fired. In Mr. Simon's book, not the work force but the population keeps being reduced. Of the three, the book whose portrait of Baltimore spreads farthest may be this new one about deadly exits.

Mr. Simon's "Homicide: a Year on the Killing Streets" (Houghton Mifflin, $24.95) was to have been released next month. It's the Literary Guild's June choice, and the author starts a 10-city promotion tour June 19. But murders will out and stores here were selling it by mid-May -- this 599-page record of the Baltimore Police Department's homicide unit at appalling work and sardonic play.

People who, in a newspaper, turn first to the crime log should understand that "Homicide" lacks photos, car chases, database magic, even guns going off. (Also: Mr. Simon went everywhere the unit went, including the interrogation room; never did he observe a civilian being systematically brutalized.)

The homicide unit has two 19-man squads. Mr. Simon stayed with the same lieutenant and three sergeants (each of whom supervises five detectives), rotating with them from day shift to 4-to-midnight and then midnight-to-8. Six blacks, 13 whites. Originally, the unit wanted no outsider along, but headquarters liked the idea. On no-pay job leave, Mr. Simon was given credentials as an unpaid police intern. He had his hair cut short, bought a trench coat, took off his earring, packed neither weapon nor recorder but pens and spiral-ring notebooks. Finishing a shift, he went home and switched on his computer.

Two hundred and thirty-four murders later, plus other cases, Mr. Simon was putting his notes into book language. (Boxing his spiral-ring notebooks afterward, he counted 347.)

Mr. Simon, 30, is from Montgomery County. He edited his school and college papers. As The Sun's College Park stringer, he earned more than 100 bylines; the paper then hired him without J-school and without zoned-edition apprenticeship. Though a babe in the police district woods, he wrote you-are-there prose. A Washington literary agent, struck by this young reporter's 25-page outline, put "Homicide" out for bids; Mr. Simon lived, that lethal year, off a $55,000 advance. After the first printing (100,000 hardbacks) come paperbacks and six-digit money.

"Homicide" and its cast of living, swearing, thinking investigators exalt you on one page, knock you down on the next: wonderful victories for justice and humanity, but also heartbreaking unfairness, cruelty, meaninglessness.

*

"The House of Magic, 1922-1991: 70 Years of Thrills and Excitement on 33rd Street" (Bob Brown, editor; 244 photos; Baltimore Orioles, paperback $12, by mail $13.50) is a vivid, colorful biography of Memorial Stadium, plus its ancestor, Municipal Stadium. Baseball, football, soccer, the gamut -- there in North Baltimore, the fun and battles have certified this city's standing in the big time.

*

Baltimore is for lovers? It is a frequent locale in recent romance fiction, such as Binnie Syril's "Baby Love" (Harlequin Temptation, $2.95). Just out, "Baby Love" is the third straight local setting used by this Baltimore author (Binnie Syril Braunstein).

*

A 1926 letter from Ernest Hemingway to John Gunther, in Paris, brought $1,250 at last month's periodic Baltimore Book Co. rare-book auction. A thoughtful letter from Chief Justice Earl Warren to Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin goes on the block at BBC's next sale, June 17 at 6:30 p.m., Towson Quality Inn, York Road and the Beltway.

*

Stemmer House Publishers has launched a text-and-picture series, Great Periods of the British Monarchy; the first volume is "Henrietta Maria: The Intrepid Queen," by Rosalind K. Marshall, a Briton (hardback, $29.95; paper, $19.95). Was it Charles I's French wife for whom Maryland was named? Readers can decide for themselves.

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