Archive for category: Prose Work

Murder, I Wrote

10 Sep
September 10, 1997

R.C. on the corner. Photo by Debra Gertler

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.

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The Reporter I: Cops Killers and Crispy Critters

01 Nov
November 1, 1992

Published in the Media Studies Journal of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia University, this was an argument for a return to narrative as a means of humanizing crime coverage.  I’d just published my first book and contemplating the second.  At this point, though, this is a rather amusing artifact given how the argument for narrative led me, kicking and screaming, out of journalism entirely.

At the moment you begin reading this, some poor bastard three years out of journalism school is sitting at a video-display terminal in a newspaper office somewhere in these United States, fingers darting on a keyboard. No doubt a cursor flashes through line after line of the same simple, tired


“A 17-year-old West Baltimore youth was shot to death yesterday in a murder that police say is related to drugs….”

Or, perhaps: “The battered body of a 25-year-old Queens resident was found by police along the shoulder of a Long Island expressway….” ‘

Or: “A 43-year-old East Los Angeles man was found stabbed to death in the trunk of his car…”

Behold the entrails of any large American newspaper’s metro section—misdemeanor homicides, casualties that will for the most part be interred in four paragraphs or less in those around-the-region packages.  Oh sure, if someone is unfortunate enough to be killed in the right zip code, if the victim happens to be famous, if he or she is killed for some unusual motive or in some unusual way (“Police said it was the first slaying involving a staple gun in more than a decade.”), then chances are a good newspaper will give it some space.  But most violence, when it first crosses a city editor’s path, looks decidedly similar: drug murder, drug murder, robbery murder, domestic, drug murder.

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Busted: Confessing to Crimes of Fashion

15 Jan
January 15, 1988

This ran as an essay that accompanied photographs of “Homicide,” “NYPD Blue” and “Law & Order” actors dressed magnificently.  My own attempts at the sartorial are no longer even comic to those who know me.  In fact, the only hyperbole in the piece is that I gave Terry McLarney more credit for being anything more than a kindred soul.  McLarney once confided to me that when he had to iron one of his own shirts, he only did the front:  “With a sportscoat, that’s all they’re ever gonna see anyway.”




Reprinted with permission.

Investigations Division: a cubicle containing two chairs, a couple of filing cabinets, and a government-issue desk. Behind that desk sits Colonel Richard Lanham, who is giving me official notice that the Baltimore Police Department will allow me to shadow a shift of homicide detectives for a year and then write a book about it.

“With certain stipulations,” says the colonel. “First, you agree to follow departmental rules and regulations at all times. Second, you obtain signed releases from any officer named in your book. Third . . .”

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