The Killing Season: A Summer inside an LAPD Homicide Division, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1997.
And Still We Rise: The Trials and Triumphs of Twelve Gifted Inner-City High School Students, William Morrow (New York, NY), 2000.
Homicide Special: A Year with the LAPD's Elite Detective Unit, Holt (New York, NY), 2003.
Former Los Angeles Times investigative reporter Miles Corwin's knack for getting the inside story of the crime- and poverty-plagued streets of Los Angeles has led to several well-received books, including his best-selling The Killing Season: A Summer inside an LAPD Homicide Division. To write this book, Corwin followed police detectives Pete "Raz" Razankas and his partner-in-training, Marcella Winn, as they tried to solve dozens of murders in the tough neighborhoods of South-Central Los Angeles during the summer of 1994. Corwin notes with irony how this is the same year of the infamous O.J. Simpson trial, which received so much publicity, while the murders of hundreds of people in South-Central every year go unnoticed by the public. Although the majority of Americans pay no attention to the carnage that occurs regularly in the ghettoes of major cities, Corwin shows that, contrary to many people's perceptions, the police do care when they see the aftermath of these crimes and what these deaths do to the victims' families.
Corwin provides stark examples of this compassion through Razankas and Winn's eyes in such cases as that of a father gunned down in front of his young son by a thief who gained only ten dollars from the armed robbery. Winn cares, too, because these crimes are happening in the neighborhood in which she grew up; Ra- zankas, the older and more experienced of the two, cares because he has invested so much of his life in his job at great personal cost to himself, including two divorces. What particularly horrifies these officers, too, is the shift in the nature of murders since the 1990s. As Jerome H. Skolnick commented in the Los Angeles Times, the majority of homicides used to be committed by friends, acquaintances, or family members of the victims as the result of fights gone out of control. "By the early 1990s," wrote Skolnick, "more than half the nation's homicides were committed by strangers or unknown persons." These senseless crimes are particularly hard for detectives to solve, since there often is not even a motive.
Although there have been other behind-the-scenes books published about the lives of homicide cops, critics of The Killing Season found much to admire. "Rarely has the genre been worked to better effect," asserted Ralph Blumenthal in a New York Times Book Review article. The critic was impressed that Corwin uses the real names of all the people he meets in his book and changes none of the details of the events described. Thus, the author's portrayal of the police shows them in a very human light. Blumenthal also credits Corwin with showing the criminals to be human: "These people too are flesh and blood, Corwin reminds us, halting his narrative periodically to examine, with a deft humanistic touch, what may have set a killer on his course and how the crime affected the victim's loved ones." Not all critics enjoyed Corwin's use of Raz and Winn as the center of his story, however. For example, Steve Mills of the Chicago Tribune found the "friction" between the black cop (Winn) and the white cop (Raz) to be "predictable." And Mills also complained that "Corwin's writing sometimes is flat. He crams the book with idle thoughts of the two detectives, and takes detours on meaningless details." Nevertheless, the critic appreciated the "depth and credibility" of the story, made possible by Corwin's ability to gain the confidence of the police detectives. Booklist writer Kathleen Hughes came to the conclusion that The Killing Season is "intensely absorbing, shocking, gritty, and realistic."
It was Corwin's work with homicide police that led to his next book, And Still We Rise: The Trials and Triumphs of Twelve Gifted Inner-City High School Students. It began when Corwin was following the story of Los Angeles detectives investigating the murder of a fifteen-year-old African American student. At first, it appeared to be just another homicide involving gang members. Then the police found a school paper written by the teen about the French Revolution. The grade of "A" indicated that this victim was not just another juvenile delinquent. "After seeing the exam, the careful printing, the A and learning a bit about the boy's life," Corwin writes in his book: "I decided I wanted to find a way to write about the other children of South-Central (Los Angeles), the students who avoid the temptations of the street, who strive for success, who, against all odds, in one of America's most impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhoods, manage to endure, to prevail, to succeed." Corwin then spent a year at Crenshaw High School, a school for gifted students that is unique in that most of its students are black. Focusing on twelve particular students throughout their senior year, Corwin blows away any beliefs that these are just a bunch of delinquents who, by the grace of a few self-sacrificing teachers, make it to college. On the contrary, these students are motivated primarily from within, and although they do benefit from some good teaching, they themselves are largely responsible for their successes and failures.
While the focus of And Still We Rise is mostly on the students, Corwin does talk about the teachers, portraying them as motivated but not without their own flaws. The author even gets a chance to experience life through their eyes when, toward the book's end, he relates how he had to unexpectedly step in as a substitute teacher and discover for himself just how difficult the job really is. Bob Blaisdell, writing in the New York Times Book Review, particularly enjoyed this part of the book because it is the only section where Corwin seems to allow himself to be emotionally involved with his subject. Because the author remains so objective throughout the majority of the book, said Blaisdell, it "isn't the book it could be … but readers have to be grateful for the abundance of classroom dialogue that is unexpected, fresh and interesting, and fine portraits, as good as fiction, of two teachers and one student."
Corwin completed his book just as California was getting ready to vote on a proposed ban against using race, gender, or ethnicity as criteria in college admissions. Proposition 209 passed, which the author regards as a tragedy, because although he admits affirmative action is not a perfect solution, he feels it is necessary to help minority students overcome their still very real economic and social disadvantages. This, then, becomes the central message of And Still We Rise, a work that "is a compelling portrayal of … gifted but disadvantaged students and the broader issue of affirmative action," concluded Booklist critic Vanessa Bush. "Corwin," a Publishers Weekly reviewer further asserted appreciatively, "succeeds admirably in avoiding the clichéd image of inner-city schools."
The author's talent for getting the inside story about his subjects has been a boon to his books, but with Homicide Special: A Year with the LAPD's Elite Detective Unit, he ended up apologizing to a judge for going too far. Returning to his earlier subject of the Los Angeles police department in this book about the force's special unit that focuses on high-profile cases, Corwin was with police when they were first investigating the murder of Bonnie Lee Bakley, actor Robert Blake's wife. Because Corwin was there during police interrogations, defense attorneys protested that the author's presence tainted the investigation. This small controversy aside, Corwin was able to successfully report on L.A.'s Homicide Special unit, which had been reorganized after receiving so much negative publicity for its botched investigation of the O.J. Simpson case. Now a much more efficient unit, the Homicide Special department includes what a Kirkus Reviews writer described as "elegantly dressed, multilingual, sophisticated cops." Despite appearing a bit more glamorous, though, their work remains extremely time consuming and tedious; Corwin describes their investigations in minute detail, yet he does so in a way that makes these stories fascinating, according to critics. "With a touch of Chandleresque panache," commented a Publishers Weekly contributor, "Corwin's true crime reads like vintage noir." And Booklist writer Gilbert Taylor concluded that "Corwin's book will enthrall true-crime fans."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Corwin, Miles, And Still We Rise: The Trials and Triumphs of Twelve Gifted Inner-City High School Students, William Morrow (New York, NY), 2000.
Booklist, May 1, 1997, Kathleen Hughes, review of The Killing Season: A Summer inside an LAPD Homicide Division, p. 1463; May 15, 2000, Vanessa Bush, review of And Still We Rise, p. 1706; February 15, 2002, Vanessa Bush, review of And Still We Rise, p. 1003; November 1, 2003, Gilbert Taylor, review of Homicide Special: A Year with the LAPD's Elite Detective Unit, p. 463.
Chicago Tribune, August 3, 1997, Steve Mills, "Killing Ground: A Reporter Looks at a Summer's Worth of Murders in South-Central L.A.," p. 14.
Denver Post, May 21, 2000, Steve Weinberg, "Immersion Study Takes Seat in L.A. Classroom."
Entertainment Weekly, January 9, 2004, Allison Hope Weiner, review of Homicide Special, p. 87.
Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 2003, review of Homicide Special, p. 1206.
Library Journal, April 15, 1997, Gregor A. Preston, review of The Killing Season, p. 98; October 15, 2003, Karen Sandlin Silverman, review of Homicide Special, p. 83.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 25, 1997, Jerome H. Skolnick, "Every Murder Tells a Story," p. 10.
New York Times Book Review, July 27, 1997, Ralph Blumenthal, "A Very Bad Year," p. 13; August 6, 2000, Bob Blaisdell, "Blackboard Jungle," p. 23.
People, September 8, 1997, Mark Bautz, review of The Killing Season, p. 35.
Publishers Weekly, March 3, 1997, review of The Killing Season, p. 54; February 28, 2000, review of And Still We Rise, p. 69; October 6, 2003, review of Homicide Special, p. 69.
CourtTV.com,http://www.courttv.com/ (March 4, 2003), Steve Irsay, "[Baretta] Ride-Along: Author Had Inside Look at the LAPD."