Book review: Ghettoside - best crime non-fiction since Homicide in 1991

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 March, 2015, 8:30pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 March, 2015, 2:42pm


by Jill Leovy
Spiegel & Grau

Jill Leovy's new true-crime book, Ghettoside, has been garnering great reviews. And that's as it should be. The absorbing first book from the award-winning Los Angeles Times journalist does what all good crime reads do: it gets your heart racing. It's the best crime non-fiction I've read since Homicide (1991), David Simon's study of such crimes in Baltimore.

Ghettoside, which traces the investigation and prosecution of a 2007 murder case in South Los Angeles, is a must-read - although it may not be for everyone. It's graphic, has a high body count and involves the slaughter of quite a few innocent people.

Leovy's book grew out of a blog she wrote in 2007, The Homicide Report, in which she covered all 845 murders in LA County that year. And that project came about because of the six years she spent "embedded" with the Watts homicide squad.

Ghettoside follows the murder of a young black man in South Los Angeles and the determined team of detectives investigating the crime. The focus on a single crime gives readers a broader view of homicide in the US, specifically the plague of black homicide, especially black-on-black killings.

"This is a book about a very simple idea," says Leovy. "Where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic."

One warm spring evening the victim is shot and killed on a sidewalk just minutes from his home. He is one of thousands of black Americans murdered that year. His assailant jumps into an SUV, hoping to join the scores of killers in the US who are never arrested for their crimes. But the case is assigned to Detective John Skaggs, and that's when the odds begin to shift.

Black males are the nation's No1 crime victims: they comprise just six per cent of the country's population but 40 per cent of those murdered. "They were murdered every day, in every city, their bodies stacking up by the thousands," Leovy writes.

"Ghettoside" is a word the author overheard a Watts gang member use to describe his neighbourhood, "with the hustler's poetic precision and perverse conceit". Ghettoside is a place and a predicament, and now it's a masterly work of literary journalism.

Tribune News Service