In everyday murder, truth is much like fiction

June 16, 1991|By Zofia Smardz

HOMICIDE: A YEAR

ON THE KILLING STREETS.

David Simon.

Houghton Mifflin.

599 pages. $24.95. If you loved "Hill Street Blues," have read all of Joseph Wambaugh and Ed McBain, and even sneak an occasional peek at the reality-based cops and mystery shows so popular on TV, then David Simon's "Homicide" is for you. This slick, fast-paced account of a year in the life of a big-city police department homicide unit is as dramatic as any network shoot-'em-up, as haunting as any unsolved mystery, as gripping as any big-screen murder thriller.

And it's true.

For a full year in 1988, Mr. Simon, a reporter for The Sun, shadowed a shift of 18 Baltimore homicide detectives as they chased down their share of the city's 234 murders. Mr. Simon apparently is the first journalist allowed such unlimited access to a homicide unit, and he purports to have made use of the privilege to give us the truth behind the myth of the homicide detective, a first-hand look at the way the men who investigate the unlawful deaths of our fellow citizens really operate.

So he takes us with them into the streets and buildings where the bodies lie, and lets us watch them classify the cases: the dunkers (easy), the stone whodunits (impossible) and the red balls (important). He takes us into the coroner's autopsy room, to watch the matter-of-fact dismemberment of the human shell. He takes us into the interrogation room, revealing the games we've always suspected they play with Miranda warnings and confessions and occasional rough-ups of suspects with particularly bad attitudes.

He takes us to the ballistics lab and the witness room and the victims' homes and the courtroom. Along the way, not everything falls into place as neatly as it does on television. Fingerprints, we learn, aren't always sure-fire evidence, just as hairs can't be definitively matched to specific people. Suspects disappear or are themselves murdered, detectives stumble and get transferred. Loose ends abound -- some major cases are never solved, remaining open to this day, their victims fast fading into oblivion.

At the same time, Mr. Simon's tales prove once more the maxim that truth indeed can be stranger than fiction. Could a novelist get away with the unbelievable insurance scams of a ridiculous lady preacher who married and murdered while holding all around her in thrall, or with the horrifying rape and beating of a 2-year-old boy?

Mr. Simon's research was clearly prodigious and his display of it is impressive. He's even pretty good at detailing the raw human aspects of his supercharged material. The detectives he follows are only rarely avenging angels; even in the most emotional cases, they maintain the professional detachment of technicians. These are men who generally came to police work for thoroughly mundane reasons: they thought they'd be pretty good at it, their fathers did it, etc. On a hot and boring summer night they sit around the telephone willing it to ring: "Lord . . . let that extension light up with murder and mayhem before we all drown in our sweat and stink."

The thing is, none of this is all that different from the myth. You know, the one we were supposed to be getting behind. Mr. Simon is a virtuoso writer (with the virtuoso's penchant for occasional excess: "In the last analysis, death at the Pennington Hotel is a sad redundancy"). He employs not a documentary but a highly novelistic style, and language full of the tough-guy cadences of the squad room so familiar from "Kojak" and "Cagney and Lacey."

The book is narrated from the detectives' point of view, Mr. Simon having effaced himself entirely. The result is a rather glorified, non-fiction police procedural, as mesmerizing as any McBain ever penned but no more illuminating. The serious points Mr. Simon may have wanted to make -- about the spiraling nature of crime in the inner city, about the tensions between police and public, about the legal system and the justice system -- are lost in the glitz and brilliance of his pyrotechnic display.

In the end, "Homicide" is just what it says it won't be, another addition to the folklore of the homicide detective, another morsel to feed our bottomless appetite for the details of man's inhumanity to man.

SG But it's quite a morsel -- one you can really sink your teeth into.

Ms. Smardz, a former reporter for Newsweek, lives in Orlando, Fla.

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