I don't like non-fiction generally, because it is usually boring.* It's reminiscent of history textbooks, to me, all first this happened, then this happened, blah blah blah, can't something explode already? Jeez!
But, no, it can't explode, because it didn't explode in Real Life, Jay, and this is non-fiction. YAWN.
That said, though, good writing conquers all, because there are some writers who can make me read stuff I would never otherwise read (Atul Gawande's Complications) about subjects I don't even care about (Michael Lewis's Moneyball), and David Simon's Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets is one of those books.
By now, you're probably familiar with David Simon--he's the guy who created infamous HBO series The Wire, which was proclaimed, like, the Savior of All Television, Espcially HBO after The Sopranos went off the air,** but this book is where it all starts.
The book is basically a recount of the entire year of 1988 with the Homicide Division of the Baltimore Police Department. Simon spent that year hanging around with them, watching them put murder cases together. They do so despite a lack of resources that is, frankly, shocking (like the homicide detectives have to work third shift, but the air conditioning goes off at five pm to save the city money, so they have to spend the overnights in 90 degree heat trying to work), and a departmental bureaucracy that is both stunningly complex and stunningly stupid. And they do it. They solve murder cases. They do so in a city that, at the time, was overrun with drug gangs*** and refused to investigate murders that were the result of those drug and turf wars as anything but individual and isolated cases, because anything else took money. They solve crimes and they testify against the murderers and sometimes, sometimes, the murderers actually get punished.
But this isn't simply a case of "OMG, police are soooo awesome," because if it was, my bleeding liberal heart wouldn't have loved this book so much. While the book is indeed on the side of the Thin Blue Line, Simon doesn't hesitate to point out the flaws of the police officers involved. They drink too much, they swear too much, they separate murder victims into "citizens" (innocent people) and "yos" (drug dealers and associates), they are often racist and they don't exactly love the idea of female cops, either. They have weaknesses and problems, and still they come to work and solve murders.
And the writing! The writing makes you feel like you're actually in the precinct house or on the case with the cops. It's vulgar and foul and full of life. Simon writes one of my favorite parts, about the detectives' use of the Miranda statement to encourage suspects to talk, in the second person, like he's talking to a suspect who has stabbed someone in a bar fight:
As you read, [the homicide detective] leaves the room and returns a moment later with a second detective as a witness. You sign the bottom of the form, as do both detectives.
The first detective looks up from the form, his eyes soaked with innocence. "He came at you, huh?"
"Yeah, he came at me."
Get ready for small rooms, bunk, because you are about to be drop-kicked into the lost land of pretrial detention. Because it's one thing to be a murdering little asshole from South Baltimore, and it's another to be stupid about it, and with five little words, you have just elevated yourself to the ranks of the truly witless.
I mean, come on. That whole scene, and countless other scenes like it in the book, just breathe authenticity. It's so specific and simple, and the dual point of view from the perspective of the suspect and the obviously-a-cop narrator is just gorgeous. This is the book I take with me on long trips, because it's almost 600 pages of this great vibrant writing**** and, once you know the arc of the narrative, you can dive into it anywhere and just get completely immersed in this gritty world. It is, in a word, fantastic.
* To me. Some people love it. Some boring people.
**and there was an award-winning television show (called, simply, Homicide) this book, too. It had Kyle Secor and Andre Braugher in it and was really good.
***I don't know anything about current Baltimore, so I can't tell you whether this is true any longer, and, living in Cleveland, Ohio, which has almost as bad a national rap as Baltimore, but is, in fact, a pretty decent place to live, I hesitate to cast aspersions.
****Also, people in the airport tend to leave you alone when you're carrying a giant black book with HOMICIDE written in red letters on the cover.