Baltimore, MD. In a small city graveyard, marked by a modest headstone, lies the final resting place of the father of detective fiction, Edgar Allan Poe. As if from one of his very own works, the atmosphere of darkness he created seems to have seeped eerily into the city of Baltimore. Today it is a city notorious for crime—in both fiction and reality—and is also known for a range of intriguing detectives. Take a look at the subgenre pioneered by Dashiell Hammett with his P.I. Alec Rush, the cultural impact of The Wire’s Jimmy McNulty, or the cult following of Sarah Koenig and her podcast Serial. All three are highly popular but also problematic: they operate partially or entirely outside the official system of law and order, as self-appointed bringers of justice. What does this tell us about the nature of the city of Baltimore? One way to look at Baltimore’s problems with crime is through the lens of James Wilson and George Kelling’s widely debated criminological essay, “Broken Windows,” published in 1982. It states: “Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken” (2-3). Baltimore’s unique urban decay gives rise to detectives with a healthy dose of vigilantism—a mode of investigation that exists outside of Wilson and Kelling’s vision. A critical and criminological examination of the three crime works set in Baltimore illuminates the relationship between crime, policing, and the self-appointed bringer of justice.
The essence of Baltimore’s character can be found in the careful choice of titles. The three works concerned here are “The Assistant Murderer,” The Wire, and Serial. Choosing a meaningful title is crucial in the production of any form of entertainment, and these three clearly show the criminal nature of Baltimore. Serial at first seems to simply describe the nature of a story distributed by podcast—episodic. However, it doubles as a reference to Baltimore’s repetitive crimes, in particular murders—after all, the most common use of the word is in the phrase “serial killer.” And, since the subject matter is a standalone killing, we are led to assume that the city itself is the serial killer. But Baltimore also murders indirectly—in fact, it is an “assistant murderer,” enabling others to kill by simply providing a conducive atmosphere. Of course, we see the “wire” at work in detective espionage, but we also feel the effect of the invisible barbed wires of neighborhood borders, strung throughout the city to separate the cattled citizens—rich from poor, black from white.
This pervasive atmosphere of crime brings us back to the “Broken Windows” theory. Wilson and Kelling describe are three stages: first, a window is broken; then, it is left unrepaired; finally, more windows are broken. Beyond the literal, the window also acts as a synecdoche to explain that unchecked urban disorder and unpunished crime are self-perpetuating. We see this in play in the three Baltimore-based works. All three begin their journeys with a dissatisfactory conclusion to a murder investigation: The Wire’s D’Angelo walks free, Serial’s Adnan is unconvincingly convicted, and, in the “Assistant Murderer” the police fail to find Jerome Falsoner’s killer. The three crimes are three broken windows left unrepaired. These are clear and extreme examples—we can find more by examining how Wilson and Kelling describe the process of urban decay:
“We suggest that “untended” behavior also leads to the breakdown of community controls. . . . A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. . . . Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. . . . Fights occur. Litter accumulates. People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off” (3).
These are undeniably the visuals of The Wire’s opening credits sequence. Unidentifiable teenagers loiter on a street by a car. Drugs are passed from dealer to consumer and then littered on the ground as the addict slumps. A youth smashes a security camera. Numerous minor acts of disorderly behavior flourish unchecked—an everyday aspect of the streets of The Wire’s Baltimore. This is echoed in Hammett’s un-reprimanded con artists and Serial’s marijuana dealings, as well as the blasé attitude towards shoplifting present in both.
These broken windows cast a mood of worry and suspicion on the citizens of Baltimore. In their essay, Wilson and Kelling refer to a survey that “in Baltimore, discovered that nearly half [of those asked] would cross the street to avoid even a single strange youth” (4). Similarly Ralph Millar, Hammett’s symbol for the “inconspicuous” and “gray” general city-dwellers, is suspicious of the dark stranger following ex-colleague Sara Falsoner but too anxious to get directly involved (Hammett, 2). Confusion and distrust are equally rife in Serial, as through Sarah Koenig’s reports, we hear from those who doubt the testimony of Jay, a key witness for the prosecution, and others who doubt their own ability to judge character in light of Adnan’s apparent guilt. Perhaps most overt of all, The Wire’s first episode shows us two eyewitnesses to a shooting, both of whom had originally testified to D’Angelo’s guilt (Simon, “The Target”). The camera lingers on their gaze as their eyes sweep the room, seeing and acknowledging the presence of the Barksdale crew of window-breakers. The first witness is shaken but stutteringly confirms his testimony, though his resigned, downward gaze shows us that he knows his likely fate. The second witness has been bribed and goes back on her earlier identification of D’Angelo. Both are clearly spooked by the window-breakers, and the message is clear: If you do not want to die (the inevitable fate of the first eyewitness who stuck to his testimony) then you have to accept that the window is not going to be repaired.
In order for windows to repeatedly break and remain unrepaired, the police must be ineffective. Based on the works, the Baltimorean lack of faith in the ability of the justice system is grounded in experience. The police force is viewed by the characters—and depicted by the writers—as corrupt, inefficient, and dismissive. The corruption can be seen embodied in Hammett’s character Scuttle Zeipp. He holds a minor position on the force but moonlights as a hit man. His greed and immorality are such that he confesses to Rush that his plan is to try “sticking around and waiting for more customers that . . . want to buy her out of the world” (11), his corruption ruling him so much that he never even completes his murderous assignment. His ineffectiveness is mirrored in Serial’s policemen who, though “better than average” at documentation (Koenig, “The Deal with Jay”), fail to interview several key friends and acquaintances, do not attempt to break down Jay’s changing testimony, and ignore evidence that doesn’t corroborate Adnan’s guilt. In essence they are lazy, opting to follow the easy route simply to file the case as ‘complete.’ They seem unworried by the potential for a miscarriage of justice.
This dismissiveness on the part of law enforcement is also found repeatedly in The Wire. The epigraph of the opening episode is “. . . when it’s not your turn,” setting up both the idea of the police force doing as little as possible and the consequences of caring beyond one’s designated workload. This mantra plays out particularly in Season Four, when the police higher-ups are less than keen to dig up extra cases that may go unsolved by investigating boarded-up homes. Nobody had come to fix those derelict houses, allowing quite literally for crime to go undiscovered and unpunished. Further, the desk-moving scene in The Wire paints a bleakly humorous picture of the utter incompetence of the police force (Simon, “Old Cases”). Attempting to use brute strength to complete a fairly simple task, several officers struggle unduly to squeeze a desk through a doorway. The use of cross-cutting between shots of officers on either end of the desk in question pits two sides supposedly on the same team against each other, and the failure is eventually revealed to be a lack of communication leading to both sides working against each other. The scene ends with a close-up of the abandoned desk: after all that, the police simply don’t care. Overall, it is not hard to see why Wilson and Kelling describe the relationship as follows: “To the residents, the police who arrive in squad cars are either ineffective or uncaring; to the police, the residents are animals who deserve each other. The citizens may soon stop calling the police, because ‘they can’t do anything’” (4).
So, according to the theory, this tendency to give up or to let elements of a crime go unresolved will lead to many broken windows. But in order to do so, the city must show its ‘assistant’ side, enabling the growth of crime, and in Baltimore, this manifests itself in inequality and segregation. Black poverty contrasts white affluence in The Wire. It seems easy for the majority of poor black youths in West Baltimore to become involved in the drug trade, similar to one broken window becoming many. Racial tensions in Serial stem from religious beliefs, as Adnan’s Muslim family disapproves of his having a girlfriend. Some commenters label this tension a motive in the murder of said girlfriend, others reason for false suspicion; either way, religious differences divide the community in the context of the broken window atmosphere. The city is divided in “The Assistant Murderer” by means of wealth more than ethnicity: the plot deals with poverty and the fear of it. The prime example is struggling shoplifter Polly Bangs, unable to live anywhere except “where Pratt Street was dingiest, [in] a dingy three-story house of furnished flats” (Hammett, 8). In a well-regulated city, she would be able to find financial help or the prospect of work; in Baltimore, she must resort to shoplifting to make ends meet. In all three works, the city nefariously nudges its inhabitants towards a spiral of poverty and urban disorder.
The failures of the city result in a fragmented, segregated community. There are rich areas and poor areas, black and white, numerous religious hubs. What follows is that certain areas–deemed not worth the time, effort, and money to rid them of the crime entrenched there—are abandoned by the police and the government. As we have just seen, Hammett’s description of Pratt Street is a prime example of a run-down neighborhood. We can see this in Hammett’s diction: a “dismal hallway” with a “tattered-carpeted flight of steps” and a “slovenly thin woman in rumpled gray cotton” do not add up to a well-maintained house (8). All the adjectives are indicative of their opposites—“tattered-carpeted” makes us think of how it should be well-carpeted, “slovenly thin” should be healthy, “rumpled” should be neat. Lack of care has led to disrepair, just as it does in The Wire. A large part of West Baltimore has been left to the drug dealers to overrun, in particular the “pit.” Our first view of the pit is a palette of brown and grey, clothes hung up haphazardly on washing lines, a well-worn grass field. There is graffiti on many of the communal walls, which, according to Wilson and Kelling, is a key indicator of urban disorder. They explain, quoting sociologist Nathan Glazer, “the proliferation of graffiti, even when not obscene, confronts [one] . . . with the ‘inescapable knowledge that the environment . . . is uncontrolled and uncontrollable, and that anyone can invade it to do whatever damage and mischief the mind suggests’” (4). Most important of all is the orange sofa. Abandoned in the middle of the pit, it acts as a focal point for the drug dealing operations, almost as a throne for the group of youths in charge. More than that, it feels like this run-down yard is their real living room, especially when McNulty pulls up and sits on a crate as a stand-in chair. The area has been so uncared for that the unruliest of the inhabitants have taken it over completely. So it gains notoriety as a hotbed of crime—similarly to how Baltimoreans view Leakin Park in Serial. One citizen darkly jokes, “When you’re digging in Leakin Park to bury your body, you’re going to find somebody else’s.” (Koenig, “Leakin Park”) Death proliferates and corpses multiply when areas are left unchecked by those in charge.
The system’s lack of care spurs individuals to take vigilante action. Baltimorean detectives react to their city’s plight by taking the law into their own hands. McNulty, Rush, and Koenig all feel that the city’s justice system is not working and so take action themselves: McNulty goes behind his department’s back to kick up a fuss about the Barksdale gang turning a witness; Rush operates as a PI, having been kicked off the force for a significant “list of crimes”; Sarah Koenig casts doubt on a court-settled case. All three show disdain for the established system and its failures, and feel that justice will be best served by other means. It is clear to see that the broken window criminal atmosphere of Baltimore is a direct motivation in their becoming vigilante detectives. McNulty kicks off the entire investigation because he senses the atmosphere of terror created by the Barksdale crew beyond their narcotic activities. Rush acts directly on the behalf of a citizen concerned about a shady character. Koenig aims to set peoples’ minds at rest one way or another, and to dispel community suspicion. Baltimorean detectives, it seems, operate best outside official guidelines.
Still, “a man gotta have a code” (Simon, “Unto Others”). This comes from Omar in The Wire, a different type of Baltimore-created vigilante. As a shotgun-wielding drug-stash robber, he isn’t exactly the poster boy for justice. But there is a part of him beyond the self-serving that feels that by depriving these drug dealers of their money, he is contributing to the cleanup of the streets. Moreover, he always operates with a strong moral code, something he has in common with the other detectives. Operating outside a preordained system necessitates the construction of independent, individual systems. In Alec Rush, this can be seen in a few small moments. He frowns upon Zeipp’s corruption, declining unveiled murderer Hubert Landow’s offer of money in spite of his “looks and . . . record,” but he has no problem slipping a small amount of money to a lowly doorman for information (Hammett, 23). In his mind, there is a key difference between the two actions, and that constitutes his moral compass. McNulty and Koenig, meanwhile, show their codes through their actions. McNulty believes that hard work and bravery deserve recognition, hence his decision to pay Bubbles as a criminal informant despite knowing it will probably fuel the latter’s drug addiction. Koenig believes that peoples’ stories deserve to be heard in spite of criticism that she is turning murder into entertainment. As readers, listeners and viewers, we accept their moral codes as the foundation for the investigation.
From there, their power stems from using their moral codes to defeat and transcend the existing broken system. They are uniquely able to walk through the city, between the stereotypical ‘sides’ of policing, with a thorough eye. Alec Rush is particularly adept at following suspects—in fact a large part of Hammett’s short story is devoted to it, and he consistently uses the word “shadow.” In a similar manner, McNulty and his team base their investigative skill on observation and eavesdropping rather than hand-to-hand methods. Koenig literally retraces many of the routes of the investigation, relentlessly following the trail wherever it leads. In their movements, they deal with both sides of the law: Koenig interviews witnesses for and against, accusers and defendants; McNulty (and Omar) frequently interacts with all levels of the Barksdale organization, as well as poorer members of the community; Rush converses with Zeipp, Landow, Falsoner, and many other characters with varying motives. The effect of all this is to display the Baltimorean detectives as uniquely able to transverse the city’s segregated lines. They are also able to counter the lazy policing through thorough research. Hammett’s choice of the word “attacked” to describe Rush’s investigative style towards newspapers shows how he channels his energies into thinking, not fighting (Hammett 13). In The Wire, detective Lester Freamon uses his intellect to dig deep and find an old but invaluable photograph of Avon Barksdale, rather than repeating fruitless efforts (Simon, “The Buys”). Throughout the series, Koenig does what the DA should have done, interviewing important unheard witnesses, as well as focusing on discrepancies and problems with the prosecution’s case.
However, the solution offered by the vigilante detective differs from that proposed by Wilson and Kelling. In fact, they note that “[t]oday, the vigilante movement is conspicuous by its rarity” (9). They instead focus on the potential effectiveness of an increase in the visibility and human presence of the police force, and recommend that the police be given the power to control street life and prevent crime before it happens. Of course, this theory is problematic, and complicated by the three works. Success is not found through cleaning the streets of potential wrongdoers before crimes have been committed. In fact, we see that this leads to failure in The Wire, as the regular appearance of the cops and their “street rips” does nothing but prompt the dealers to move to the next corner in a game of cat-and-mouse. Instead, the works display the effectiveness of intense long-term surveillance but little or no contact: this allows Alec Rush to fully understand his targets and their crimes and McNulty and his team to build up a bank of evidence to use against the Barksdale gang. Even Sarah Koenig makes strides through retrospective surveillance of victim and suspects, following their moves and tracing their calls. These works then prompt the question: why is the vigilante streak in detectives so prevalent and popular if criminologists have found it to be uncommon and less effective than other methods?
To answer this, we must first ask another question. With arguably more relevant social injustice than Los Angeles, more racial segregation than London, and more urban decay than New York, the fictional Baltimore of The Wire, “The Assistant Murderer,” and Serial is the prime example of a city of broken windows. Why do people want or need the concept of this city, when the reality is that Baltimore’s level of crime is not dissimilar to other large cities? I believe that the solution is simple: romanticism. Readers, viewers, and listeners all want to believe that even in the harshest criminal environments, somebody is striving for justice. It is for the same reason that superheroes such as Batman have inspired children for decades—after all, he is the “World’s Greatest Detective.” He, like McNulty, Rush, and Koenig, will inspire future readers, writers, and—hopefully—policemen to think critically about the system and come up with the best solution to the problem of broken windows.
Hammett, Dashiell. The Assistant Murderer N.p.: Manybooks.net, 14 Sept. 2008. PDF.
Simon, David. The Wire. HBO. June 2, 2002 – March 9, 2008. Television.
Koenig, Sarah. Serial. 2014. WBEZ Chicago. Podcast.
Kelling,George and Wilson, James. “Broken Windows.” The Atlantic Monthly. March, 1982. PDF File.