“This is a book about a very simple idea: where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic. African Americans have suffered from just such a lack of effective criminal justice, and this, more than anything, is the reason for the nation’s long-standing plague of black homicides.”
~Jill Leovy, Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America
I picked up this book less than a month ago, when I was in Barnes & Noble, deciding what to get (rather, how many books I could get) with the generous gift card that Mom and Dad gave me for Christmas.
I think this was on the “Recommended Reading” shelf – Plus, the 20 percent off sticker didn’t hurt, either.
I’ve been interested in true crime stories for a long time. It’s fascinating to see stories unfold on TV – Castle, Cold Case, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Criminal Minds, NCIS, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and so on. But, most of the time, the stories we see on shows like these are fictionalized. Some are based on true stories, but most are created by writers.
This book initially caught my attention because of the title. I was asking myself, “Okay, what is ‘Ghettoside?’ That sounds interesting.”
The story Leovy, a reporter for The Los Angeles Times, writes is full of twists and turns. She follows John Skaggs, a Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) homicide detective, as he works to solve the murder of Bryant Tenelle. Bryant was 18-years-old when he was shot in 2007. Bryant was also Wally Tennelle’s son – A LAPD detective assigned to Robbery Homicide Division (RHD).
She goes deep into some of Los Angeles’s worst areas – Watts, south of the Ten, and so on. But, she tries to dispel some stereotypes and myths along the way. She identifies several of the worst gangs in the area, and tries to figure why black men kept killing black men. It’s evident that she’s a talented researcher, as well as a writer.
I could tell, almost immediately, that this book took a long time to write. Leovy spent years on this book. Simultaneously, she was attempting to capture and track every homicide in Los Angeles County, in real time.
Ghettoside was riveting. It has a few weak points – There were a lot of characters introduced early on, and it was difficult to keep up at first. I found that I had to stop myself early several nights, because I didn’t want my brain to be overloaded, even though my brain wanted me to keep going. The timeline flipped and flopped a few times.
I felt every emotion while reading this book. Some scenes almost made me sick; Leovy is incredibly detailed. This book is not for the faint of heart. She writes graphically at times, but only to hammer home the point at hand. She wants to emphasize how awful these homicides are. She does a tremendous job of capturing emotions from the characters involved – The LAPD, the grieving families, witnesses who are terrified to testify, and even the prosecutors.
In addition, she shines a spotlight on divisions within the police department that are frustrating to many. It’s evident there’s still work to be done.
Fortunately, progress has been made. Homicide rates in the area have fallen dramatically. Leovy appears pleased and proud of the work that’s been done. She strikes a good balance of narrative and statistics – A balance that kept me reading several chapters a night.
It would be interesting to have a follow-up book several years from now, to see what’s changed.
4 out of 5 stars.
Until the next headline, Laura Beth 🙂