Occasionally I happen across a book so powerful I can't shake it; even when I think I'm done with it, it refuses to be polite and go away.
I'm experiencing that with Jill Leovy's Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America. I listened to an audio recording of the book weeks ago, and I can't quit thinking about it.
Maybe that's partly the result of the ongoing upheaval over the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., as well as other fatal confrontations between black males and white cops.
But mainly it's that Ghettoside represents non-fiction crime reporting at its best. Indeed, this book is more than simply crime reporting. It's a sociological portrait of inner-city life. It's poignant and revelatory.
It leaves you with the uneasy recognition that much of what you thought you knew about gangs, impoverished black neighborhoods and the middle-class, conservative, mainly white cops who police them was wrong.
Leovy is a veteran crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times. She's spent a decade trailing Los Angeles police officers, hanging out in squad rooms and knocking on the doors of people whose husbands or grandsons have been murdered.
In Ghettoside, the fulcrum of her tale is Los Angeles Police Detective John Skaggs, a white cop who works homicide in South Los Angeles.
Over one recent 15-year period, the area accumulated a staggering average of 40 unsolved homicides per square mile.
Leovy follows Skaggs as he and his colleagues try to crack the senseless murder of Bryant Tennelle, 18, a sweet-natured black teenager killed as he and a buddy walked along a street minding their own business.
Tennelle's father, also a LAPD detective, was the first officer on the scene — he found his son dying of a head wound.
But along the way, Ghettoside does much more than serve as an impeccable police procedural. It also educates you, startles you and ultimately breaks your heart.
In Leovy's account, much inner-city violence can be traced directly to Reconstruction and the Jim Crow South, when the lives of blacks were so devalued police didn't consider homicides that "only" involved black people even worth investigating.
Gradually, into this vacuum of law enforcement sprang self-enforcement—revenge killings, honor killings, vigilantism.
When Southern blacks migrated to the West and the North several generations ago, some, particularly the poorest, brought this culture with them.
And once again segregated in, for instance, Los Angeles communities such as Watts, they found themselves not so much over-policed, as often is the perception about black neighborhoods today, but under-policed.
As Leovy makes clear, many residents of South Los Angeles are indeed frustrated by heavy-handed police tactics such as stop-and-frisk.
But if anything, they remain even more frustrated by their sense that the LAPD doesn't care about the big crimes, that it doesn't protect them from the relatively small number of their neighbors who are ruthless, hardcore criminals.
Whatever its roots, violence in these neighborhoods, and in similar neighborhoods around the country, is epidemic, although numbers recently have declined.
Black males are 6 percent of the U.S. population, Leovy notes, but nationally make up 40 percent of murder victims. Homicide is the No. 1 cause of death for black males ages 15 to 34.
In South Los Angeles, the majority of those killings go unsolved.
A widespread perception is that inner-city witnesses refuse to cooperate with police in solving crimes because they abhor "snitches."
Leovy shows this to be only superficially true. In fact, witnesses decline to cooperate because they believe — with good reason — the police can't protect them. If they do agree to cooperate, they're almost certain to be killed by the murderers.
Into this cauldron Detective John Skaggs trudges off to his job every day.
Once again, stereotypes get bounced on their heads.
Skaggs truly cares about the people he serves. He works an impossible caseload, labors all night and through weekends, delivers victims' personal effects to mothers, stands with them in their living rooms as they sag to the floor sobbing.
But he and fellow detectives are overloaded with cases and largely unsupported by the LAPD's command, which isn't much concerned about South Los Angeles.
The most affecting part of Ghettoside, though, is Leovy's evocation of the incalculable emotional toll these killings take on survivors.
In neighborhoods with 40 unsolved murders per mile — and obviously, this doesn't include cases that were solved — virtually everyone has lost somebody.
(Many victims, by the way, are unlucky non-partisans like Bryant Tennelle, people killed in crossfires, or because of mistaken identity, or in robberies, or for no reason.)
A brother wanders the street where his older brother was shot down, hoping he'll be killed, too, so he can escape his pain. Parents dissolve into tears, literally shaking with grief, five or even 10 years after a kid was lost.
There's a mother Leovy mentioned in an interview on NPR who heads to the cemetery after dark and spends her nights spread-eagled on her son's grave.
The agony never abates.
It wasn't Leovy's goal, I don't think, to tell us how to end this national tragedy.
But her tale illuminates a misunderstood, terrible corner of American life. It's a story you won't soon forget. Read Ghettoside.