Book review: Ghettoside

IT’S TELLING that the testimonies on the cover of Ghettoside, a work of non-fiction, are from fiction writers.

Martin Amis says Jill Leovy’s book is ‘exceptional’; Michael Connelly says it’s ‘fantastic’.

Leovy took the brave step of telling this story — ‘of murder in America’ — in the style of a novel.

It takes great skill, as a writer and as a journalist, to produce a book that works both in terms of its structure, in the form of a novel, and its content, as a work of factual journalism.

Leovy has accomplished this with enviable aplomb.

Her decision makes sense, as her tale, of the black-on-black murder plague in south Los Angeles is so overwhelming, so numbing, that a standard journalistic approach would get bogged down in numbers, statistics and studies.

Here she paints the lives of “two ghettoside craftsmen” — detectives John Skaggs and Wally Tennelle — and their Herculean battle to do their work with professionalism, compassion and dedication.

The main character, or personality, in her book is Skaggs and she weaves an overall narrative with his investigation of the murder of Tennelle’s son, 18-year-old Bryant, in a mindless gangland shooting.

The book opens with a piercing introduction to Skaggs: “Los Angeles Police Det John Skaggs carried the shoebox like a waiter bearing a platter.” The box, we learn, contain the shoes of a murdered 15-year-old boy, and the delivery is for the boy’s mother.

Leovy tells us that the boy, Dovan Harris, is just one of the young dead, “their bodies stacking up by the thousands, year after year”.

Skaggs is a Republican and by no means a liberal. But he rails against a prevailing view — not just among many colleagues, but society at large — that the murder plague stems from the DNA of black people. Both Skaggs, and Leovy, hold a firm belief that it is the State’s inability to catch and punish killers that is “a root cause of the problem”.

The failure of the system, writes Leovy, “makes black lives cheap”.

Skaggs, says Leovy, believes the residents are “ordinary people, trapped by conditions of lawlessness” and that “coercion and intimidation” is behind much of their “apparent acceptance of violence”.

Leovy pays deep respect to the array of personalities that pepper her book, no matter if they are addicts or law officers. It’s encouraging to see a more sophisticated, complicated picture of US policing — and of the police — than we typically get from the media.

In her author’s note at the end of the book, we learn Leovy was embedded twice in detective units in south LA, in 2003 and 2008.

As a police reporter with the Los Angeles Times, she conducted a staggering amount of work for her book — and it is that research that gives it its authority.

A slight criticism is that there are too many personalities to follow. A map of the area would also help the general reader.

But her work is a credit to the troubled trade of print journalism.

She displays exemplary dedication. And like a true disciple of journalism, and in contrast to the modern trend of making journalists ‘players’ in the story, she is secondary to the voices of those who matter: the police, the victims, their families and the gangsters.

It is not that her touch is light — there is polemic here, and sometimes it is a slight bit overblown — but it is overwhelmingly grounded and backed up by research, by insight, by experience, by compassion, and by passion.

The glowing words of Amis and Connelly are justified.


Jill Leovy

Vintage, £8.99 (€12.80)

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