True crime books get a bad rap, usually deservedly so. They are often sensationally or salacious written, pandering to a voyeuristic nature that plays up the monster angle of those who have perpetuated horrific acts of violence. Those books that look into the real impacts of crime on the victims, perpetrators and investigators, or examine the cause and effect that social policies have on these crimes or examine and question our attitudes to crime and punishment are few and far between.
One of my favourite crime books, fact or fiction, is Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon. This book was the basis for the television show Homicide: Life on the Street (Killing was considered too dark for a show about murder) and was the core basis along with his other non fiction book The Corner for the greatest TV series of all time, The Wire.
Jill Leovy’s book follows in the same tradition as David Simon. Leovy was a crime reporter for the LA Times and spent various periods embedded with Los Angeles Homicide Detectives. Ghettoside is centred around one murder, one among many. That of 18-year-old Bryant Tennelle who happened to be the son of a homicide detective. The book painstakingly follows the investigation all the way through to the end of the trial of his killers two years later. In the process Leovy shows how endemic murder has become, particular the murder of young African-American men in Southern Los Angeles.
Leovy does a fantastic job in showing the whole social picture of the crime. Not just what was going on in Southern Los Angeles in 2007 but back through the decades. She shows that what looks like out of control gang violence on the surface is in fact the result of systematic indifference to black-on-black murder going back years. What is causing the massive spike in murders in the southern areas of Los Angeles is not race, it is not drugs and it is not poverty. It is the fact that these murders are more often than not unsolved and the example and expectations that this sets.
Leovy argues that by ignoring crime and treating it as less important a void is created in communities that erodes that community’s sense of justice. That these attitudes not only infect those that live in these communities but also those whose job it is to police crimes in these communities, further perpetuating and fuelling a circle of violence and injustice. This indifference is intensified when it is ignored. When the media fail to report on the crime that is occurring, when the media misrepresent the crime when they do report it is just further proof that these communities are left to their own devices. This void is then filled by a culture of revenge, mistrust and fear where problems are dealt with on the street, not by police. Police are then hampered not only by this culture in which ‘snitching’ is severely punished but also by their own bureaucracy which leaves them under resourced and under trained, further sustaining the problem.
This is exactly what a true crime book should be. It is insightful, constructive and an indictment on what is happening in the world around us. Like any crime story there are heroes and villains on both sides. And there is also overwhelming grief. Grief and pain that is too often ignored. Grief that gets lost in the endless numbers that get pushed from desk to desk, report to report. The book is billed by the publisher as being about “a senseless murder”. It is only senseless if we allow it to be senseless. And that is the true tragedy at the core of this brilliant book.
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Classification: True crime
Format: Hardback (240mm x 156mm x mm)
Imprint: The Bodley Head Ltd
Publish Date: 5-Mar-2015
Country of Publication: United Kingdom