As I write this, we've racked up 332 murders, and we're on track to beat a decade-old record. This has been the case for much of the year, but some folks are finally tuning in. Namely Philadelphia magazine, which in their recent cover story brings its predominantly suburban readership some breaking news: Shit's bad out there. Oh, and that Joey Sweeney's life closely resembles Revenge of the Nerds. (Full disclosure: I'm an ex-Philly Mag staffer.)
What's interesting about the Philly Mag story creatively titled "Murder" on the cover, along with coverlines and the requisite stock image of a gun presents the problem as a mystery to be solved. In fact, the story promises that a "Philadelphia-based national expert has the solution," as if Sherlock Holmes can be trotted out at the end of the year to explain what the bumbling police inspectors have missed all along. ("Didn't you notice the crack hos were acting a bit unusually after drinking their 40-ouncers, Watson?") Mysteries are fun, because it's nice to believe in a Law & Order view of city life which presumes that, with the just the right amount of hard work, we can convict the criminals in the end.
This is the way of a traditional mystery novel: Chaos is introduced, but through the actions of a lone agent or organized investigatory force, order is restored. End of episode.
And that's a nice thought, if you live in the suburbs and read Philadelphia magazine . But we're not living in a mystery.
Philadelphia feels more like a crime novel.
In a traditional crime novel, things are already chaotic. Then they get worse. Only through blood, sweat and pain can you fight your way back and hope for the best: a restoration of the original chaos. And that's as good as it gets.
We're talking about a universe as described by Philly's preeminent noirist, David Goodis, or even the Philly-born James M. Cain: You start out swimming in a pile of shit. Then people start shooting at you. The shit level rises. Someone betrays you. And if you're lucky, by the end of the story, you're only swimming in a pile of shit again.
To put it in TV terms: We're living in a world of The Wire, which takes place in our civic soulmate, Baltimore. Some episodes do feature a return to the status quo. Unfortunately, that status quo is too often hell on earth or, the usual miseries inner-city residents are forced to deal with.
On that end, the Philly Mag piece, written by Gregory Gilderman, detailed the usual miseries quite brilliantly. You've got abandoned blocks and Korean delis and a wasteland coverable only by car. Anyone who's never read a story about a police ride-along will be shocked. Where it slipped off the rails, for me, was the "sell line" Look dummy, we've got the answer in our own backyard .
That answer comes from criminologist Lawrence Sherman from the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology at Penn, who conducted a study in the 1970s which suggested that active gun patrols removing illegal weapons from the streets at pre-identified "hot spots" (heavy crime areas) led to a serious decline in gun crime.
This is a great idea. In fact, it was great even when our Philly Blunt columnist, Brian Hickey, suggested much the same thing back in May.
But presenting it as "the solution" blithely ignores the tub of shit this city is floating in. I have no doubt that active gun patrols would cut down gun murders. Bring it on. However, gun patrols would do squat to challenge the status quo namely, the living crime novel we all call home.
Gilderman writes: "[Sherman] didn't say that the police can restore the nuclear family, eliminate poverty, bring back the industrial economy, or in any other way assuage the 'root causes' many people think are behind urban violence."
Sure. That's not the job of the police. But it's still kind of important, isn't it?
Taking Sherman's innovative way to treat a symptom and call it a cure is wrongheaded. It's a temporary hand-up out of the shit, not a way to drain it, and applies a tidy mystery novel solution to a crime novel world. If Sherlock Holmes were walking around Philly today, he'd get his ass shot.