By Steve Weinberg
With so many superb investigative/ explanatory books published by U.S. journalists during 2015, singling out just a few to this year’s IRE investigative book list feels daunting. That is true every year, but for reasons I cannot decipher precisely, the year 2015 felt more that way. Certainly, the impressive quality and quantity of investigative/explanatory books signify a positive trend for our craft.
As a result, this year I have decided to mention a few that stayed with me the most vividly weeks or months after I reached the fi page. I realize that this approach is especially subjective, because it reveals as much about my particular subject matter preferences. And, as you must have already realized, I could not read every book on the book list. So if the book you published during 2015 is not mentioned among the few in this brief essay, I hope you will understand.
The book from this compilation that stuck with me most vividly throughout the year is “Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America,” written by Jill Leovy of the Los Angeles Times, published by Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House. Parts of the book focus on a “routine” murder in Los Angeles, the death of an 18-year-old black man shot while walking on a street, apparently because the style of hat he wore suggested a gang affiliation.
The exploration of that homicide relates how a squad of detectives is trying to reckon with the pandemic, which, in their division, involves so many black men killing so many other black men. The vast majority of those murders never result in anyone going to prison, and the cases go cold.
To some readers, the situation might seem superficial like an ugly cliché, but Leovy avoids that trap, in large part because of her empathy grounded in being embedded with detectives during their workdays. The detective who becomes Leovy’s primary character for narrative purposes grew up as the son of a homicide detective and is extremely demanding of himself, as well as his colleagues.
Leovy’s insights are frequently stunning. For example: “The state’s inability to catch and punish even a bare majority of murderers in black enclaves such as Watts was itself a root cause of violence … The system’s failure to catch killers effectively made black lives cheap.”
In a bizarre way, the anarchy of violence stops being anarchy and looks something like a systematic approach to existence, with the establishment criminal justice system beside the point. Leovy shows that when a dedicated, persistent detective cares deeply about solving a murder most folks barely seem to notice, justice can prevail.
Leovy told Walter Heymann, who featured her in the magazine Kirkus Reviews, “I never think of myself as a nonfiction writer. I don’t even think of myself as a writer. I think of myself as a homicide person. That’s my thing. I’ve just been into homicide.”
Other books from the list that have stayed with me month after month include some that are predictably, and importantly, topical, including:
- ”Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone” by Scott Shane, Tim Duggan Books.
- “Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS” by Joby Warrick, Doubleday.
- ”Where Everybody Looks Like Me: At the Crossroads of America’s Black Colleges and Culture” by Ron Stodghill, Amistad.
- “Michelle Obama: A Life” by Peter B. Slevin, Knopf.
- ”Billion Dollar Ball: A Journey Through the Big Money Culture of College Football” by Gilbert M. Gaul, Viking.
- ”Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America” by Bruce Barcott, Time Home Entertainment.
- ”The Story: A Reporter’s Journey” by Judith Miller, Simon & Schuster.
- ”Shots on the Bridge: Police Violence and Cover-Up in the Wake of Katrina” by Ronnie Greene, Beacon.
Tracking investigative/explanatory books becomes more difficult every year due to the rise of self-publishing and boutique trade publishers. If you know of a book (including your own) that should have a place on this list, please contact me: [email protected] Although I dislike circumscribing the list, please realize that it is limited for practicality to books with a 2015 publication year, published as a hard copy version.
Steve Weinberg served as IRE executive director from 1983-1990. Now he writes books, magazine articles and newspaper features as a full-time freelancer.