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American Magazine

Facade of Baltimore's Homicide Building

(Photo: Jeff Watts)

Homicide: The Birth of an Entertainment Franchise

In the late 1980s, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun did what all good reporters do: he picked up the phone and asked a question.

David Simon’s proposal—shadowing homicide detectives, including McLarney’s squad of five men, for a year—was outrageous, laughable, even. But, somehow, the brass agreed.

The result, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, is one of the most celebrated true crime books of the last two decades. The 1991 book recounts some of the year’s most difficult and notorious cases and offers readers an intimate look at the lives of Baltimore homicide detectives, from crime scene to barstool. Homicide also spawned the Emmy award–winning television series of the same name, produced by AU alumnus Barry Levinson, SOC/BA ’67, himself a Baltimore native.

Accolades aside, McLarney, as all good investigators are, was skeptical in the beginning.

“We were paranoid; we watched how we did things in front of Simon,” says McLarney, noting that police are “an earthy bunch,” for whom four-letter words and locker room humor come naturally. “But after a while, we just got too busy to notice. That’s when he did his best reporting.”

Throughout the 600-page tome, Simon depicts McLarney as a “street-worn, self-mocking, hard-drinking cop,” who was also “one of the most intelligent men in homicide.” McLarney’s work ethic was the stuff of legends, as was his subtle, self-effacing humor.

“Generations from now, homicide detectives in Baltimore will still be telling T.P. McLarney stories,” mused Simon. Among them: the time McLarney used his service weapon to kill a mouse rummaging around his wife’s closet, and contemplated leaving the carcass amidst the shoes and slacks “as a warning to others.”

That was just one of the McLarney gems that found its way into Simon’s later project, The Wire, the HBO series that chronicles the triumphs and tragedies of police, dopers, and dealers. In fact, the critically-acclaimed drama opens with the parable of an ill-fated thief named Snot Boogie, whose murder McLarney investigated.

Snot Boogie was shot after swiping the pot from a crap game—something he did regularly. When McLarney asked a witness why they continued to let Snot Boogie play, knowing he would snatch the cash, he replied, quizzically: “You gotta let him play . . . This is America.”

Although McLarney enjoyed Homicide, which made the detectives “look human and effective,” he’s more critical of The Wire.

In a city where about 75 percent of all homicides are drug related, McLarney denounces entertainment that “normalizes” the drug trade. “In the real world, drug dealers are thugs who terrorize people—there’s nothing normal about that,” he says.

Despite their political and ideological difference, McLarney and Simon are buddies, and still get together to swap stories over beer. McLarney also penned the afterword for the latest edition of Homicide, which, to date, has sold millions of copies. —AF