BALTIMORE — A lot has happened for David Simon since his first book, “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets,” was published in 1991.
His 600-page blockbuster on a team of Baltimore homicide detectives became a bestseller and ultimately recognized as a classic. It became the basis for a long-running television series. And the TV shows Simon has written and produced in the years since, including HBO’s “The Wire,” have changed that medium.
So the 63-year-old Baltimore resident seemed as tickled as he was gratified last week when he held up a copy of the latest work to bear his name — “Homicide: The Graphic Novel, Part One” — for a fascinated roomful of fans in Baltimore.
“I sent some early copies to some of the detectives — to my friends — and I got back a lot of funny responses, from ‘What the [heck is this]?’ to ‘I can’t believe it has gone this far,’” he joked as part of a launch event at Greedy Reads bookstore in Remington.
Simon declined The Baltimore Sun’s request to be interviewed about the new work, a tightly written, 317-page, hard-bound comic-style creation he co-authored with the French illustrator Philippe Squarzoni.
First Second Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers, released the book in the U.S. on July 25 after an early rollout in France. The second part is to appear in December.
Squarzoni was not in attendance for the event, but the spontaneous, often humorous disquisition Simon delivered gave insight into how and why he took part in an adaptation of the book, how he collaborated with the illustrator, and what is involved in translating an established work into a different medium.
Dressed in a dark button-down shirt and jeans, with a pair of sunglasses perched atop his head, the former cops reporter for The Sun told the audience how modestly the whole 35-year-old “Homicide” phenomenon actually began.
It was in the 1980s that Simon, then in his 20s, asked his bosses at The Sun for a leave of absence so he could follow a shift of homicide detectives for a year. After convincing police brass to agree, he spent a year reporting, hoping to write “a long, nonfiction narrative” and “not be embarrassed in front of anybody else who had done this kind of journalism.”
“I just wanted the book to sell enough copies that I could go back to the same editor and he might say, ‘OK, let’s do another book,’” he recalled, only to see the project lead to working with Baltimore-born moviemaker Barry Levinson on a TV adaptation, getting a chance to learn screenwriting and directing, and ultimately channeling his skills into making “The Wire,” widely viewed as one of the great shows in television history.
“Even for my first eight or nine years in TV, I kept saying to myself, ‘I’m going to go back to newspapers,’ because it all seemed a little bit farcical,” he recalled. “I expected it to end. Now I stand here before you, literally, talking about a book that is more than 30 years old. And I didn’t even work on it!”
That last remark drew laughter, as no one familiar with Simon’s famously exacting approach to his labors would buy that he simply slapped his name on someone else’s product. And as he discussed how “Homicide: The Graphic Novel” came together (he concedes it’s a little strange to call it a “graphic novel” since it’s based on a nonfiction work) Simon offered a window into some of his thinking about storytelling.
It had never occurred to him, he said, to try reframing the original in the increasingly popular graphic novel format. And when Squarzoni, a man he’d never met, wrote him to pitch the idea, he was skeptical. Would the artist be able to do such a project justice? Did he appreciate the importance of honoring the facts of a story that is, after all, nonfiction, many of whose characters are still alive? Was he determined enough?
In the texts and emails the two sent back and forth — they have still not met in person — Squarzoni showed such obsession for detail and passion for the book’s setting and characters that the idea swayed Simon, then drew him in.
“With each chapter, he’d ask me a long list of questions about things that I had taken for granted, that weren’t important in writing prose,” the author said with an appreciative laugh. “Obviously, in writing a visual novel as he was, it matters who wears a shoulder holster and who doesn’t, what a Chevy Cavalier looks like, or whether Dave Brown wears a tie clasp or not.”
Cavaliers were the government-issued cars the Baltimore detectives drove in the late 1980s; Brown was a detective on the squad. Both are rendered in detail.
At times Simon reached out to surviving members of the homicide squad, including Terry McLarney, a detective sergeant who was a central character in the book and is the last member of the team still working for the Baltimore Police Department.
“I’d say, ‘Terry, I don’t remember this, maybe you do,” Simon recalled. “Sometimes he did and sometimes he didn’t. But I tried to answer all [Philippe’s] questions, because he was really dutiful.”
The book took shape as the pair worked in this vein, and what emerged was a version of “Homicide” with a pared-down storyline, a matter-of-fact feel, a lot of the original dialogue, and with a black-and-white color palette (save for the reds employed to depict blood) that feels more 1940s film noir than full-fledged Simon-style verite.
It’s far from the kind of treatment the author gave the original story — Simon thought of his approach back then as “stand-around-and-watch” — but he found the result uniquely invigorating and fully worthwhile.
“I read it like a new book, a new narrative creation,” he said. “It feels different than the book, and it should.”
The author connected the process to one he has worked at for years: turning lengthy prose works into dramatic television.
Some elements of communication will inevitably be lost as new ones are embraced, he said, and those trying to “perform surgery” in this way must keep that in mind.
“You can’t replicate a book in another form,” he said. “If you do, you [screw] it up. You’re too true to what is there to make something fresh. So one of the things I did for Philippe was I got out of the way.”
Simon spliced plenty of other ideas into his half-hour talk and into the question-and-answer session that followed. He said the retirement of an older generation of homicide detectives has contributed to the mushrooming homicide rate in the city (there were 234 killings in 1988 compared with 333 last year, and the population is nearly 20% smaller). It doesn’t help that cops are more handsomely rewarded for making lots of busts for marginal crimes like street-corner dealing than for catching a single killer.
It was all good fodder for guests such as the Tivvis family of Carney, who arrived for the evening early enough to grab seats in the second row.
Joe Tivvis, an attorney, his wife, Aileen, and their daughter Julia, 22, a college student and bartender, are longtime admirers of “The Wire” and said they hoped to get a copy of the new book signed for Julia’s sister, who couldn’t make it.
A few rows back, Rodney Davis cradled his two new copies. He took a few moments to reminisce about serving as an extra on several of Simon’s shows back in the day — including as a gun seller, a bartender and a dead body — and even about the day he broke his thumb (and threw up) during a shoot.
“I’ve never felt that kind of pain, but of course I’d do it again,” he said.
The line for autographs was long as Simon chatted with fans afterward. He signed the Tivvis’ book, among others, and smiled as he did the same for Davis moments later.
The former bit player held his two copies close to his chest and paused before heading out the door. “He remembered me,” he said.