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The story behind the upcoming Homicide Report

July 17, 2008 |  5:17 am


photo of a memorial for shooting victim Dovon Harris at 114th Street near Central Avenue in Watts by Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times

Book insiders who subscribe to Publisher's Lunch caught the announcement this week that we can expect a new book from LA Times reporter Jill Leovy, which will be based on "reporting all 845 LA County murders last year - weavig [sic] together a kaleidoscopic narrative about a murder-wracked community in South Los Angeles with a new theory about race and America's homicide epidemic." Since Leovy also blogs here at the Times -- at the Homicide Report, which is as fascinating as it is troubling -- we wanted to know more about the project, the ideas behind it, and what crime books she reads.

Jacket Copy: Does your book chronicle all 845 murders in Los Angeles last year?
Jill Leovy: No. The book is not related to the Homicide Report blog, nor to my efforts to cover all homicides in Los Angeles County last year. (In reality, there were more then 900.) The book will be about the syndrome of high homicide rates among blacks in America, their causes and consequences.

Jacket Copy: Will you focus on a specific area or region?
JL: The book will be mostly reported out of Los Angeles, but it seeks to explain a national phenomenon. High homicide rates among blacks are everywhere -- not just in Los Angeles but in Detroit, Washington D.C., New Orleans, and many rural areas and smaller cities as well. The examples in the book will be drawn largely from Watts and South-Central Los Angeles where I have long worked, but the argument is for the whole country.

JC: Without giving too much away, what can you tell us about your "new theory about race and America's homicide epidemic"? The answer... after the jump.

JC: Without giving too much away, what can you tell us about your "new theory about race and America's homicide epidemic"?
JL: I won't go into much here, but I'll argue that the conventional explanations for the black-on-black homicide syndrome, such as drugs, gangs, poverty, single-parent homes, etc. do not tell the whole story. We need to ask different questions and look more deeply into the conditions that produce high homicide rates--conditions I will argue are universal to high-homicide populations the world over.

And of course, the book also asserts America needs to recognize the problem of homicide among black men as an urgent national priority. High incidence of "ghetto murder" should not be the status quo. At the very least, we should view our homicide rate as a national embarrassment.

JC: What are some of your favorite books on crime, true or otherwise?
JL: I have some problems with the true-crime tradition on a number of fronts, and my book will argue we need to move away from such traditions and start talking about homicide in a different way.

For one thing, some literary and media portrayals of homicide tend to deepen our already considerable complacency and indifference toward this problem. Americans have grown used to thinking that murder is just what goes on in the so-called inner city-- that it's just an endless cycle, an inevitable product of urban poverty, part of the wallpaper of big city life. Another day, another drug dealer shot dead in South Central. Another drive-by. Understandably, we shrug and turn away, telling ourselves: "Forget it. It's Chinatown."

Or worse, we fetish-size street violence and gang life, not pausing to consider the immense suffering which high homicide rates inflict on the people forced to endure them.

Having said that, there are obviously some great journalistic efforts to depict the reality of homicide, such as Miles Corwin's "The Killing Season." But the truth is I actually don't have a favorite book on crime. If I read or watch anything about murder, I have to force myself, and I do it only because it's my job. I've had more than my fill of homicide. If only one never had to write or read about it again.

Carolyn Kellogg