Those who know me will already be aware of my love of The Wire. I've written about it for The Telegraph and on my other blog. This book, written between the second and third series of the show, is a companion piece to the TV series packed with treats for fans but really it's only for fans. Fortunately it isn't one of those cheesy tie-ins that seem to accompany even the most critically-acclaimed shows (The Sopranos Family Cookbook, anybody?), nor does it trivialise the series by telling us how many cigars Bunk got through last season or round-up Prop Joe's witticisms (The Tao of Bada Bing, anyone?).
Still, a third of the book, already pretty slim given the large pictures and spacious layout, is given over to synopses of each episode of the first two seasons. It's worth reading for the occasional insight - usually pointing out the subtleties in the writing and demonstrating how major plot points are casually dropped in via a stray line here or there - but it's old ground for most fans.
That leaves only about 150 pages of serious content but it's a goldmine. David Simon's introduction is full of nuggets:
"The best crime shows [...] were essentially about good and evil. Justice, revenge, betrayal, redemption - there is precious little in the tangled relationship between right and wrong hasn't yet been fully, and even brilliantly, explored by the likes of Friday and Pembleton and Sipowicz. The Wire, by contrast, has ambitions elsewhere. [...] Specifically: We are bored with good and evil. We renounce the theme."
In a fascinating essay, Simon lays out the political and social argument at the heart of The Wire and talks about its place in a TV world where a happy ending is all. Even on the formula-breaking Homicide, itself inspired by a David Simon book, the rules of TV drama were enforced. Simon tells a story about Homicide's executive producer Tom Fontana:
"...when Tommy wanted to write three successive episodes in which a violent narcotics dealer escaped all punishment, he was told he could do so only if detectives shot and killed the bad guy at the end of a fourth episode. Good, one. Evil, nothing. Cut to commercial."
There's a great essay from novelist Laura Lippman, Simon's wife, about the women of The Wire, another from author and historian Anthony Walton about the social significance of the show and one from Alvarez, whose father and grandfather worked the docks, about the realities behind season two.
It's while exploring the real stories behind the show that the book excels. We learn that the first series was based on a real investigation carried out in the 1980s by Ed Burns, the show's co-creator. The book introduces us to the real Bubbles (who really did tip the police to the identity of drug dealers by pretending to sell them hats), the real Bunk and figures from the drugs trade such as Bodie Barksdale, Proposition Joe Johnson, Stringer Reed and Roland Bell whose names were borrowed for characters in The Wire.
It's a decent book, though The Wire deserves a better one. Perhaps it will get written once the fifth and final series concludes next year. In the meantime, this is still a must-read for fans.