While working at the Baltimore Sun, Simon was primarily a crime reporter, covering police-centered stories and for the most part he loved the job, until 1986 when the Sun was purchased by the Times-Mirror Company which also owned the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Denver Post and many other newspapers. The buyout resulting in benefit cuts and a subsequent writing strike. After participating in the strike as a union captain, Simon was looking for a reason to spend some time away from the Sun. Though he wouldn’t officially leave the sun until 1995, this selling of the Sun would influence his decision. Simon said, "I got out of journalism because some sons of bitches bought my newspaper and it stopped being fun”-David Simon, City Paper, 2003. Simon would also say that Times-Mirror discovered that they could make more money with a mediocre paper than they could with a good one.
Simon took a leave of absence from the Sun in 1988 to follow the Baltimore Police Department’s Homicide Unit. He took direction from something said to him by a Baltimore Detective named Bill Lindsay in 1985:
"I remembered back in '85. It was Christmas Eve and about four in the morning I brought a bottle up with me to the homicide unit for a little Christmas cheer. There was this good guy, Bill Lindsay, and he said, 'if somebody wrote a book about what goes on during a year in this place, I would read it.'"-David Simon, Fun comes down to 'The Wire', 2007
Due to his time as a crime reporter, Simon already had some semblance of a relationship with BPD and after some hounding, they agreed to let him follow their homicide detectives for a year.
Though it was Simon’s goal to blend in while following the detectives, he got really close with the detectives while working on the book. He said, “I shared with the detectives a year's worth of fast-food runs, bar arguments and station house humor: Even for a trained observer, it was hard to remain aloof.” -David, Simon Homicide Life on the Street: Unofficial Companion. Now, I know I make these videos, but I am not a journalist, so knowing how involved Simon was with his subjects was surprising to me. Not wrong, just interesting. I always wondered whether journalists feel conflicted about whether or not to intervene and after looking it up, it seems like that’s a big sort of debate. Detached journalism versus interventionist journalism.
Forming bonds with his subjects will become a recurring thing for Simon throughout his career, keeping him connected with many of his subjects throughout the years for one reason or another and led to lots of crossover in properties that he was affiliated with. In the case of the Homicide book, Simon’s proximity to the detectives lead to him helping to apprehend and search a suspect. And led to the involvement of some of the Detectives in both Homicide and The Wire.
Using his personal ethos and desire for truth to guide him, Simon decided that the goal of his book would be to show that police work is work and not necessarily selfless and noble like many were made to believe. Specifically, he wanted to give an accurate portrayal of detectives. Rather than seeking to do the most good, the Detectives of the BPD treated their jobs like you or I would treat our jobs. Simon wasn’t seeking to discuss whether this was right or wrong, just that it was.
The book opens with the accidental murder of Roy Johnson, a nondescript drug dealer. Sergeant Landsman makes several jokes when they get to the crime scene and even tamper with his body prior to photos being taken. He was killed on Gold and Etting by one of his workers, who was supposed to protect him and who would plead guilty to murder later.
Simon makes it clear that this murder is just one of many for the officers and detectives in question. He also makes sure that the reader knows that the work isn’t at all glamorous or altruistic. It was just work: “The story of Roy Johnson’s murder is brutal in its simplicity, simple in its brutality…and Pellegrini could have been dispatched to the Gatehouse Drive shooting, where a living victim and living witnesses were waiting to give up a murder and add one more to the list of clearances. Instead, Pellegrini went to Gold and Etting, where a twenty-six-year-old dead man stared up at him with sudden, silent comprehension. Luck of the draw.” -David Simon, Homicide: A Year Killing on the Streets, 1991
He stressed that clearing cases was the Homicide unit’s main concern. There’s a saying they use in reference to clearing cases, “First, they're red. Then, they're green. Then, they're black.” When the cases come in, they’re written on the board in red. While working to solve the cases, the detectives would often go into overtime (so, green). And when the case was solved it was rewritten on the board in black.
After the cases were cleared, they didn’t matter anymore. “Consider the fact that a case is regarded to be cleared whether it arrives at the grand jury or not. As long as someone is locked up—whether for a week or a month or a lifetime— that murder is down…If the charges are dropped at the arraignment for lack of evidence, if the grand jury refuses to indict, if the prosecutor decides to dismiss the case or place it on the inactive, or stet, docket, that murder is nonetheless carried on the books as a solved crime.” -David Simon, Homicide: A Year Killing on the Streets, 1991 Remember this when we talk about The Wire.
He also made sure to stress that the desk work was often just as important as solving crime. “Murders come and go in this town, but God forbid you should forget to write the correct mileage on your activity sheet or, worse yet, forget to note the parking space so that the next man spends fifteen minutes walking up and down the headquarters garage…” -David Simon, Homicide: A Year Killing on the Streets, 1991
In his dedication to realism, Simon adopts the lexicon of his subjects with this book. For example, “red ball” murders are considered “murders that matter,” meaning that they draw a lot of media coverage and political attention.The BPD would always assign more resources to these ases. Another term used is “citizen” or “taxpayer,” which refers to those that are not touts, dealers, addicts or otherwise involved in crime. While other murders are…murders. Remember this lexicon thing when we talk about The Corner, but especially for when we discuss The Wire.
The book was published in June of 1991 and the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publishers saw big potential in Simon’s book and wanted to pitch it as a television series. Based on my experience in publishing, your agency will have a television and/or film rights department that will help pitch your book to studios for you, but this is successful for like less than 1% of books. So the fact that Simon was able to do this successfully twice is huge.
The show was picked up by NBC in 1993 and featured several characters based on the Detectives that Simon followed. For example, Detective Frank Pembleton portrayed by Andre Braugher, one of the series most beloved characters, was based on Detective Harry Edgerton. Some detectives would play roles on the show and others would play roles on The Wire and have fictionalized versions of themselves on The Wire as well. Homicide was also the home of Edward Munch, portrayed by Richard Belzer, who would also be a part of Law and Order in the years to come. In fact, Law and Order and Homicide would have several crossover episodes. Other important characters include Lieutenant Al Giardello, portrayed by the late great Yaphet Kotto, Kay Howard, the only female detective in the homicide unit at the start of the show, Meldrick Lewis, Tim Bayliss, Steve Crosetti, Clark Johnson, Beau Felton and many others. We’ll talk more about Howard and Pembleton later.
Even though Simon wouldn’t be directly involved with the production of the show until season three, the show operated in a fashion similar to the book, the detectives were focused on solving, but mostly clearing, cases. Simon would say, "The greatest lie, I think, in dramatic TV is the cop who stands over a body and pulls up the sheet and mutters, 'Damn' and looks down sadly. To a real homicide detective, it's just a day's work."-Simon.