Book Recommendation: On the importance of crime nonfiction | Bleader

Book Recommendation: On the importance of crime nonfiction


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Today Michael Miner has a dispatch from Paul O'Connor, who got his start as Mike Royko's legman. His suggestion for the Sun-Times is more crime reporting. I've got a good model....

Drive-By, by former Reader reporter Gary Rivlin, who's probably best known around here for his outstanding book about Harold Washington, Fire On The Prairie. After four years at the Reader, the Northwestern grad moved to the Bay Area, where he's worked as a reporter and editor for the Contra Costa Times, the East Bay Express, and The Industry Standard, as well as a freelance writer.

After a few years in the Bay Area, Rivlin wrote Drive-By, a slim but remarkably rich account of the sort of high-profile killing that periodically makes the news here - a drive-by shooting that took the life of a 13-year-old. Despite being fairly short as nonfiction goes, Rivlin is able to work in a remarkable amount of detail, going back into the lives and histories of the families involved, not to mention the cultural and economic history of Oakland and the neighborhoods the story revolves around. Reading it, I was favorably reminded of J. Anthony Lukas's Common Ground. It's a remarkable work.

I also thought this was interesting:

"Reporters don't have to leave the comfort of their desks to tell us the names of the gangs. No right-to-know newspaper man has to set foot onto the deadly streets of our town to get the information to draw a
map. Show us the map of gang turfs, with the gangs names on their turf. Show us the maps where the turfs are disputed. Put the high schools on the gang-turf map."

Well, since you mention it, there's a map for that. The maps on haven't been updated in a year, but it's still a fascinating site.


"Maybe the [management information services] folks at Police Headquarters should be required to GIS fire fights in real time, and maybe the Times' and Trib's websites would be willing to offer a neighborhood gun fire landing page. If not, maybe MacArthur or the Chicago Community Trust would pay for the people's right to know what is going on on the streets of this city."

Well, there's of course EveryBlock, which began life as a crime-focused data-gathering tool.

So I sort of have to disagree with O'Connor. I think, via the city's traditional media outlets as well as sites like EveryBlock, we do have a sense of what's going on on the city streets, insofar as we have the data. But the data in and of itself isn't especially helpful, or at least is just a bird's-eye view - it's who, what, where, and when, but not why. For that you need reporters like Rivlin, whose talents are expensive and rare.