David Simon's Homicide may be getting on a bit, but to lovers of his TV series The Wire, his 1988 book about a year spent with the Baltimore police department's murder investigators will feel awfully familiar. For one thing, the officer on the cover looks a bit like Dominic West, the British actor who plays the self-styled super cop Jimmy McNulty. For another, Jay Landsman, an amiably podgy, pornography-loving sergeant on screen, shares his name with a shrewd and profane real-life detective who is introduced in the book's first sentence. Besides being a hefty work in its own right, the book is the fanboy's dream introduction to the reporting process that culminated in the TV series widely acclaimed as the best ever made; to Simon, though, it's a relic from another life.
"I was – Jesus! – 27 when I started the book," he reflects, looking back on the project that first tore him from the bosom of the Baltimore newspaper he had believed would be his professional home forever. "It was all very intimidating. The detectives were all 10 or 20 years older than me." To survive, he joined the cops on endless nights of heavy drinking, buying round after round in the hope that they would be sufficiently amused by his rapid inebriation to let him stick around. "It wasn't quite Candide coming to Paris," he says. "But I was just this suburban kid."
Simon is no longer that suburban kid. To use the description employed by Terry McLarney, another detective from the unit who wrote an afterword to the book in 2006, "He has transformed himself from a T-shirt wearing, wet-behind-his diamond-studded-ear, notebook-toting journalist of questionable prowess into an award-winning author, acclaimed screenwriter and accomplished television producer."
He still doesn't seem like a big shot, though. When I meet him during his trip to the UK to promote the new paperback edition of Homicide, his blunt conversational style, ordinary shirt and jeans and what seems a terribly honest sort of baldness all suggest someone whose heart remains on the metro desk of a US city newspaper. ("I guess Hollywood is an industry of which I am a part," he says sourly. "But I have something in my contract that says I don't have to film anything west of the Mississippi.") These days, he doesn't need to buy the cops beers to get their respect: indeed, there may not be a bar in Baltimore where he'd be able to pay for his own drink.
The unfortunate byproduct of that recognition is that a project such as Homicide – or its sibling, The Corner (Canongate £12.99), which, with its clear-eyed anatomisation of the nature of street-level drug addiction, provides the other half of the blueprint for The Wire – would now probably be impossible. "It's much harder for me to do journalism now," he says, "because you don't want to affect events too much. People go, 'It's the dude who did The Wire!' and you have to fight through being the focus of people's attention. Acquiring the moment and keeping it non-fiction is almost impossible."
It's a pity, because the book makes clear that, before he is anything else, Simon is a reporter of remarkable fidelity and persistence. He professes an interest in doing another book from the floor of a struggling car factory somewhere like Detroit, and if that book were anything like Homicide or The Corner, it would be a great read: thoughtful, passionate and built on an array of narrative details that feel utterly novelistic. Ordinarily, I would feel obliged to include a disclaimer at this point, noting that my brother works for Simon's UK publisher, but so universal is the critical esteem in which Simon is held that a response to his work that falls short of unrestrained adulation is more likely to raise eyebrows than excessive praise.
Simon is, of course, well aware of this reputation, and shows no inclination to disagree with it. But when he talks about other TV shows, or the state of newspaper reporting today (he left the Baltimore Sun after a disagreement with the new owners, who are subjected to a withering critique in series five of The Wire), he sounds less motivated by his own achievements than by bitter frustration at his rivals' failure to match them. When I ask him to name another TV show he likes, he comes up with The Sopranos, Deadwood and Shameless; when I ask him to name a show he thinks compares to The Wire, he draws a blank.
"I've seen cop shows that have a little bit of cynical dialogue or a bit more quirkiness, but they're still cop shows," he complains. "I have no interest in a simple morality tale. The Wire is not about good and evil: it's about systemic issues that leave good and evil behind. How much can be said about heroes and villains that hasn't already been said?"
This is an argument Simon has rehearsed before, and – along with a show that is basically about how institutions ruin people's lives even on the rare occasions when they try to save them – it has drawn the regular observation that he is an angry man. Rachel Corbett, his friend and former editor on the Sun, affectionately remembers him as a pig-headed deadline-pusher, forever starting newsroom arguments. And Clarke Peters, who plays the hard-boiled detective and miniature-antique enthusiast Lester Freamon in The Wire, acknowledges that he can be difficult.
"David's social skills sometimes leave a bit to be desired," he says. "But I wouldn't say he's angry. If there's a subject you're well versed in and someone wants to challenge you without any facts, of course you're going to get riled. David's spent time on those streets. He knows what he's talking about."
On a personal level, Simon insists, he is an amiable soul. "I actually feel pretty happy about a variety of things," he says, sounding more exasperated than about to fly off the handle. "I like a grilled-cheese sandwich with tomato as much as the next guy. But if you've been an American during the past 30 years, what other appropriate response is there? Wall Street, Katrina, the mortgage bubble, being lied to about Iraq – are you trying to tell me some degree of anger is not appropriate? What is the temperament that you would like to see from a commentator trying to speak to that? Ennui? Indifference? Light-hearted frivolity?"
The point, then, is that anger makes a difference. "No," he says. "I don't write from a sense of crusade, I don't have a belief that anything I do will change the terrain in the slightest, and if it does, it stands an equal chance of changing it for the worse. It's hard enough to tell a story properly."
After I leave Simon, I go to a screening of The Corner. This HBO TV series from 2000 is a harrowing depiction of a woman named Fran Boyd and her battles against addiction, which seem destined to end in disaster. Now, though, she is 14 years' clean, and married to Donnie Andrews, a reformed murderer who was one of the inspirations for The Wire's fearsome stick-up man Omar, and whom she met through Simon and his writing partner, Ed Burns. Today, Andrews and Boyd are chatting cheerfully outside the Renoir Cinema in London, during their first trip abroad. Whether a grand social project is realistic or not, things do seem to change when Simon is around.
"Well," he grunts. "If I expect a story to be part of a great plan to fix things, I'm just setting myself up for ridiculous levels of disappointment. No, you see something and bring it back to the campfire and tell it properly, and now it exists where it didn't before. I have to be content with that."
Homicide , By David Simon (Canongate £8.99)
'... You look at the body. You look at the body as if it were some abstract work of art, stare at it from every conceivable point of view in search of deeper meanings and textures. Why, you ask yourself, is this body here? What did the artist leave out? What did he put in? What was the artist thinking of? What the hell is wrong with this picture?'
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