Los Angeles Times reporter Miles Corwin takes his second stab at creating a West Coast version of David Simon's "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets" in "Homicide Special: A Year With the LAPD's Elite Detective Unit."
Corwin's last book, "The Killing Season," followed a mismatched pair of South Central homicide cops who juggled a mind-numbing caseload through a year of investigating murders of all kinds in a neighborhood where 400 killings took place.
"Homicide Special" has a similar format, though the cases are very different. The detectives are part of a handpicked unit of the elite Robbery Homicide Division, which investigates only the most complex or highest-profile cases and are given the time and resources to solve them.
Homicide Special got a few black eyes during the O.J. Simpson case - not for getting it wrong but for sloppy police work and careless chains of evidence. When the book opens, the unit has been largely reworked with aggressive but careful cops in the squad.
The book opens with the murder of a beautiful Russian call girl, and detectives work their way through a fascinating collection of illegal immigrants, women forced to work as prostitutes to pay their passage to America, pimps who might as well be called slavers and various and sundry grifters associated with the Russian mob.
In fact, one of the most interesting things about "Homicide Special" is the international flavor of the victims. Other cases involve a quiet Filipino doctor saving her money so she can live like a queen when she returns home who is killed in her cheap apartment and a Japanese woman and her infant daughter who are found bound together under a ship in the harbor.
Of course, the one case in the book that everyone will remember is the Robert Blake-Bonnie Blakey homicide. Anyone who reads this account will figure the prosecution has a slam-dunk case.
"Homicide Special" is a fine book, but it doesn't quite reach the heights of Simon's "Homicide," nor is it quite as memorable as his own "The Killing Season."
Part of this has to do with the cops themselves. Like a balanced basketball team, none of the characters of the cops really stays with you very long after the book is finished. While the cops are a multiethnic mix - mostly white, Hispanic and Japanese - and they engage in a fair amount of ethnic banter, these guys are all-business. Each could list Sgt. Joe Friday as a role model.
On the other hand, fans of investigative detail and technique will find this a treasure trove, since the cases are dealt with at length. The detectives poke considerable fun at the TV show "CSI," laughing at the idea of forensic evidence collectors questioning suspects and the thought that forensic evidence can be processed in a single day.
Several times in the book, in fact, detectives get reports from Los Angeles' notoriously slow crime lab that confirms the guilt of suspects who had been convicted years earlier.
Interestingly, although they make no active appearance in the book, the murder victims are memorable, thanks to the compassion with which Corwin tells their stories and the dedication of the cops to finding the facts of the case.
L.A. Times crime reporters are racking up quite a record, with Michael Connelly becoming one of today's finest authors of police novels and Miles Corwin looking to become the West Coast's Robert Daley. Like Daley, another journalist, Corwin's writing skills go beyond mere reporting; he has a novelist's sense of story and pace.
"Homicide Special" is a near classic - a sympathetic and absorbing look at today's policing.