Death by violence is their business

Monday Book Reviews

July 08, 1991|By LeRoy Panek

HOMICIDE: A Year on the Killing Streets. By David Simon. Houghton Mifflin. 599 pages. $24.95. NO DOUBT, more people can recount the details of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo than can name even one historically important police officer.

History books and school curricula universally ignore the police. Teddy Roosevelt: Rough Rider, big-game hunter, president, Bull Moose candidate, but who knows that he was also a reform police commissioner? Who cares?

Closer to home, look for an entry about these "bad boys," the police, in the index of Robert J. Brugger's massive "Maryland, A Middle Temperament: 1634-1980," and you will come up empty: "Poles" and "Political culture" are both listed, but not "Police." Almost all that most of us know about the police comes either from fiction or from television.

Over the course of American history, though, spectacular crimes or alarming peaks in the crime rate periodically move journalists and their publishers to ask what these guys on the force are really doing. It is the sort of spirit that moved DeFrancis Folsom in 1888 to write "Our Police: A History of the Baltimore Force." A century later it is also the spirit that moved David Simon, a reporter for The Sun, to spend a year with the Baltimore Police Department's homicide unit, which he has chronicled in "Homicide."

In 1988 Simon rode with the detectives who investigated the untimely deaths of 234 souls -- infants and geriatrics, blacks and whites, men and women, straights and gays, employed and unemployed, law-abiding and criminal -- who lived in Baltimore. And he made that experience into this very big book. In part, "Homicide" is a diary that traces a score or so of the homicide investigations that took place during that year. Detectives take a call, survey the crime scene, collect material evidence, interview witnesses and suspects, visit the medical examiner's offices and testify in court.

In part the book also describes the way the Baltimore Police Department functions as an organization, noting the differences between the bosses and the workers, the tension between productivity and efficiency, the influence of politics and the problems of people working together under stress. Simon adds bits of information about the history of the department, considered one of the most brutal and racist in the country before Donald Pomerleau arrived in 1966 to clean it up. He also provides glimpses of Baltimore geography and ethnography. In the end, the working lives of 19 Baltimore homicide detectives string this welter of information together.

Still, "Homicide" is not a usual kind of book, nor is it easy to categorize. History, chronicle, diary, analysis, description, prescription: None of these terms fits what Simon has done. Readers can come away frustrated by all of the bits: the bits of geography, the bits of history, the bits of analysis, the fragments of characters. They can come away frustrated because "Homicide" does not answer big questions about law, and crime, and individual rights.

It does not do these things because the book reflects Simon's experience during 1988, not part of it but all of it. That experience with the Baltimore homicide squad made Simon go native. Simon's passionate immersion in police life and work shifts the book from reporting or analysis. It makes "Homicide" a piece of minority literature.

dTC Like skin color or ethnic background, the fact of their employment makes police officers a separate group. The

homicide police have their own slang, their own mores and folkways, their own attitudes toward each other and toward myriad aspects of the world outside the squad. No one outside the group shares these things, and few people understand them. "Homicide," then, is a passionately involved description of this particular minority, the police. As such it shares in the strengths and weaknesses of this type of literature. "Homicide" too often becomes a polemic, and readers come to know only the most superficial aspects of the individual detectives' lives.

But the book also contains much to enable readers to understand why the police are the way they are and to enable them to accept the police as special and valuable as individuals and as a group.

LeRoy Panek, dean of research and planning and professor of English at Western Maryland College, has written four books about crime fiction, two of which have won Edgar Allan Poe awards from the Mystery Writers of America.

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