Jacket art for "Ghettoside" by Jill Leovy.

Jacket art for “Ghettoside” by Jill Leovy.

by Hugh Gilmore

I read four timely books about race relations this year, not because I enjoy reading books about abstract topics, but because I am always searching for something interesting to read. I like reading true crime stories, partly for the detecting aspect and partly because they speak for the victims.

Be careful what you wish for, though.

My “best” book of the year – the one I read most compulsively and was moved most deeply by – is Jill Leovy’s “Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America” (Spiegel & Grau, 2015). In fact, several sections of “Ghettoside” were so unexpected and shocking I had to put the book down and go do something else, sometimes not resuming until a day or more had passed and I had braced myself for more. In this book Leovy humanizes an unsavory subject that is nonetheless so common it barely makes the mainstream news anymore: street homicides, especially those casually referred to as black-on-black crime.

Leovy has covered the crime beat for the Los Angeles Times for years. In 2007 she started a blog based on a then-radical idea: She would attempt to cover every murder in the city for a year. Back then the Times covered only about 10 percent of the daily murders. They happened too frequently for the paper to devote space and investigative time to all of them. Leovy’s blog was called “The Homicide Report.”

(The L.A. Times was not alone in this allocation of resources. All big-city papers follow that practice. Closer to home, for example: when Mt. Airy white grandmother (and Chestnut Hill Local employee) Regina Holmes was murdered this past summer, three young black men were also killed that day. Mrs. Holmes story was widely featured on local TV stations and in the newspapers. The young men were unidentified, at least not right away, in a bare inside-mention of the crime report. A few more young black men died the next day too. And the next. And so on.)

To write this story, Leovy accompanied the police to crime scenes, witness interrogations, hospitals, morgues, crime labs, and investigators’ team meetings. Most perilously (for her own emotional health), she talked to the mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, sisters, brothers, cousins, friends, neighbors and teachers of the victims. The tears, the anguish, the broken hearts you read about in this book are just about unbearable.

To give the book a narrative structure, Leovy focuses on the death of Bryant Tennelle, 18, an intelligent but naive son of a policeman. The boy’s hopes and dreams are presented to us, as are his father’s, his mother’s, his siblings’, his friends’ and his teachers’. One night while carrying a root beer and pushing his bicycle home, a car pulled up across the street and another boy, also 18, jumped out and shot and killed him, mistaking him for a member of a rival gang because he was wearing a gang-color baseball cap.

As the book unfolds, the shooter’s life is also described. As is that of his mother, his father and his extended family – all the people on the “other side” of the murder. All of them crying, upset for the rest of their lives.

The search to catch the murderer fell to a dedicated white Los Angeles Police Department detective, John Skaggs, who had to fight both the department’s bureaucracy and the “don’t snitch” code of the streets. His methods were simple: sympathy, dedication tenacity and a will to do his job. His code: no matter how “bad” a kid may seem to be, when his dead body hits the cold street he becomes a victim. He and his fellow homicide detectives, despite many hardships, serve the victims.

All through this mean narrative Leovy considers national statistics on street crime, black/white/Hispanic relations, the latest theories on crime prevention and treatment of criminals and the lack of support given to those who would uphold the law.

Through the relatively simple act of reading a specific true crime story the reader is offered a much larger view of urban crime in America. It is the book I was most impressed by this year, a personal story whose impact ripples out to tell the more general theme of violent crime in America.

The Los Angeles Times still maintains “The Homicide Report” website, but not as a blog. Leovy wrote the blog almost daily for about a year and half. Since then it has gradually morphed into a statistical and personal report of each Los Angeles County homicide and includes community maps that show the geographical distribution of crime scenes. Every entry is followed through time, updating each victim’s story from the first police reports, to the coroner’s and judiciary’s reports.

As much as possible, the entries are accompanied by interviews with the victims’ and perpetrators’ families. The website is interactive, and often the comments section that follows a report contains fascinating takes and anecdotes about the victim, the crime and the entire criminal justice system.

Not a savory subject, to be sure, but, “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…”(John Donne, “Meditation XVII” – originally published in 1624, nearly 400 years ago, and still true.)

AN INVITATION: We invite all our readers to contribute to our 9th annual Readers’ Roundup of Favorite Books of the Year. Send me an email with your nomination. Do it soon. hughmore@yahoo.com

Hugh Gilmore is the author of the noir bibliomystery, “Malcolm’s Wine,” and the bibliographical essay, “Redneck Noir: A Personal Journey.”