From The New Republic, September 1997
Reprinted with permission.
I used to cover crime on the late shift in Baltimore for The Sun. It was a living measured, by and large, in four-paragraph installments. You’d call the cops, ask what was going on, and then, when they emitted a handful of facts about which body fell on which corner, you’d write it up briefly and send it to the night editor. West Baltimore, East Baltimore, lower Park Heights, Cherry Hill—the rowhouses and postwar housing projects were all decidedly similar, and, assuming the casualty was poor and black, the newspaper accounts were similar as well.
“A 21-year-old West Baltimore man was shot to death yesterday….”
“… police say the assailant fled on foot after the stabbing. No suspects have been identified.”
“A 16-year-old Pimlico youth was found murdered ….”
In four years, I manufactured about a thousand of those formulaic morsels. The bodies I wrote about were, for the most part, buried in a handful of $200-a-plot cemeteries and potter’s fields in South and West Baltimore. The newspaper accounts were likewise interred—page D2 in the Maryland-in-Brief regional wrap-up. The detectives who investigated these forlorn cases called them misdemeanor homicides.
I wrote a book about these detectives, and Barry Levinson, a Hollywood director who used to live in Baltimore, decided to turn the book into a network television show. A few months later, a film crew showed up and began ?lming. Cheap motels, broken rowhouses, projects, street corners — the same rotted Rustbelt terrain that had yielded all those stunted news briefs suddenly became a studio backlot. Eventually, I left the newspaper and went to work writing murder stories for the television show.