Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Year of not buying books

Later this year my theme will be not shopping. Today I came across Barry Osborne's story "My Library Year" from the Denver Post. He is the newspaper's research librarian who decided to use his public library more, and not buy books in 2008. I cannot emphasize enough how important libraries are. His story tells about saving money and enjoying some books that he might not otherwise have read.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Year We Disappeared

The Second "true crime" book I selected for February is a much quicker and easier read than Homicide. The Year We disappeared is written by John and Cylin Busby, a father daughter team, about an attempt made on John's life while he was working as a police officer in Falmouth, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. I didn't realize when I picked this book that both the books I selected this month would have local ties for me. Cape Cod is less than an hour drive from where I live in Bridgewater. I have read about 2/3 of the book already and am sad to say that some things I believed, but hoped weren't really true, about small town politics, are given credence in the book. Police looking the other way when crimes are commited by certain connected people in town, investigations that aren't really investigations, small time mobsters terrorizing the town without any fear of reprecussions, and selectmen who just let it all slide. Not that I'm saying any of this happens in Bridgewater.

Monday, February 23, 2009

More Information

David Simon on Homicide, Truth and Journalism

Homicide on Wikipedia

A year

Simon points out that framing his work during any 12-month period necessarily makes it arbitrary. Investigations do not conveniently begin on January 1, and end on December 31. Some things were already in progess when he started following the homicide detectives, and others continued after he left. One high-profile case, from early February of 1988, involved the investigation of the murder of an 11-year old girl. At the time the body was found extra personnel were assigned to investigate and the investigation was ongoing throughout the rest of the year. If this had been a work of fiction, the end of the story would have had tied up all loose ends and we would know who killed the little girl. And it probably would not be the person we most suspect. In real life, we follow the story, and although there is reason to believe that there is a suspect he is never charged for lack of evidence. We never know. Perhaps at some point after the book was published the killer was found. Life, and death, continue outside of the one-year time frame.

Reasonable doubts

According to Simon, Baltimore City juries are notorious for letting people off. All doubts are reasonable. It is a question I hadn't thought of before. What is a "reasonable doubt". Whenever I hear about a person who is exonerated for a crime for which they have already served time, or received the death pentalty for, I wonder where the line for reasonable doubt can be drawn. Is it worse to have a guilty person go free, or an innocent person punished? I am reminded of a movie, interestingly enough with a Baltimore connection: ...And Justice for All. I must have been 15 years old when I saw it the first time. I remember after it was over saying to my sister "Hey, all the innocent people are in jail, and all the guilty people went free." To which she gave the response "Duh. It's a satire."

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


When a name matches what a person does that person has an aptonym.

"Only in July did the Dollie Brown case become truly bizarre, for only then did a murder defendant with the singularly appropriate name of Rodney Vice begin talking to prosecutors..." (p. 377)

Writing-It's not just for English majors anymore!

"Waltemeyer's written reports...were no better than district quality when he first came to homicide-a typical problem for men who spent more time on the street than at the typewriter, but in homicide the reports genuinely mattered, and what fascinated McLarney was that after mentioning the value of coherent paperwork to Waltemeyer, the detective set out on a sucessful, systematic campaign to improve his writing ability. That was when McLarney first realized that Waltemeyer was going to be one hell of a detective." ( p.376)

This passage reminds me of a story one of my colleagues in the Criminal Justice department at BSC told. She said she just loved it when she worked as a district attorney and a poorly written police report was submitted. She just knew she would be able to blow it full of holes and win the case for her client. Everyone should learn to write well. It always matters, not just in homicide.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

To Protect and To Serve

The first objective of any organization is to perpetuate itself. A homicide detective's job is to investigate after a murder has been commited. They do not try to prevent murders. Are they at odds with patrol officers who may be working to stop crime? Are homicide detectives really interested in protecting? If they succeeding in doing so, they would be out of a job.

Drinking and driving

It is somewhat unsettling to read how much the homicide detectives drink after their shift and then drive home. There is some mention in the book that they are concerned about "getting caught", but no mention that they are concerned that they may actually cause an accident. I wonder what would happen if they did get caught. The book indicates that the brotherhood watches each others' backs pretty well.


According to Simon, homicides go up about 10% in Baltimore in the summer. He describes one incident in which a 16 year old is killed over a popscicle. Frankly, I am surprised that the rate only goes up 10%. Baltimore summers are miserable. From July to August there is 100 degree days combined with 100% humidity, and the night time brings no relief. I remember lying in bed in my second floor, unairconditioned, apartment one summer night after night wondering when sleep would come. Inside the city it was even worse. The houses are close together and there are fewer trees. No matter what time of night you drive down certain streets you can see people sitting on the porches of their rowhouses trying to catch a non-existent breeze. Isn't there a short story that ends with a line about it being so hot it is enough to drive a man mad? Maybe from Edgar Allan Poe?

Monday, February 9, 2009


So, I've gotten about 1/3 through Homicide and it occurs to me that it does not really fit the rubric of "year of" books that I intended. It is not a memoir. David Simon does spend a year following detectives and reporting, but there is no reflection. I think it really struck me when I read a passage about some evidence being reported in the Baltimore Sun that the detectives had been hoping to keep out as it would hinder their investigation. Simon reports that the detectives are upset, but there is no indication that it will make any difference to him when he returns to jounalism.

None of this is to say that the story is not engaging. I intend to finish the book, and blogging about it.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Leakin Park

Growing up in Baltimore, everyone knew that Leakin Park was the place where bodies were dumped. Simon devotes about a paragraph to this in the book. What is so fascinating about this is that I-70 was supposed to run through Leakin Park, but it was never completed. I-70 starts in Utah, and goes all the way out to Baltimore, where it stops abruptly at a Park & Ride, rather than connecting with I-95 as planned. It wasn't too long ago that you could see the "ramp to nowhere" when driving through the city. Ironically, the destruction of the parkland was the reason for terminating the project in 1982. I guess there were some really worried people with deep pockets who didn't want that area disturbed!

I don't always rely on Wikipedia for accurate information, but I think in this case there is some pretty good information:,_Maryland

Time of death

One passage in the book describes how the time of death is estimated based on body temperature, rigor mortis, and in cases of days-old bodies, maggots. I actually know someone in Maryland whose job was to help determine how long a person had been dead based on the type of insects found in the body. The last time I saw him he was ready for a career change.

Police Women

There was only one woman in Homicide in Baltimore in 1988 when Simon was following the unit. I noticed in the episodes of TV show I saw there are several women. I wonder if in the 10 year interval more women joined the Homicide unit, or if the show just thought that adding them would be a good way to boost ratings?

Chapter 2

By the time I got to the second chapter of Homicide I was already convinced murders in Baltimore were drug related. I guess that is what Simon was trying to do because the second chapter immediately wakes the reader out of that notion with the description of the discovery of the body of an 11-year old girl who had been reported missing from her home two days before. The investigation is different from those previously described where dectectives joked and brought in witnesses wearing mini skirts with nothing on underneath (what bothered me the most about this, was how cold I felt reading it - it was in January for goddess sake!). Here the witnesses include a librarian(!), and the greiving family of the little girl.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Geography of Coffee

I didn't expect that I would get so far behind in reading and posting this soon. Anyway, I started Homicide, but have not gotten very far, and it is a pretty fat book. It may be the only one I read this month. As, I have mentioned previously, coffee is an important part of the culture in my home. My husband actually teaches a course on the Geography of Coffee and this passage from page 23 seems brings his passion to mind: "His left hand cradles a glass mug in the shape of a globe, filled to the Arctic Circle with brown bile from the very bottom of the coffee pot."

Otherwise, so far I can say this: this book is about a Baltimore that I, fortunately, was pretty unfamiliar with growing up.