Review: Ghettoside

Ghettoside: A Story of Murder in America, Jill Leovy


Published January 27th 2015 by Spiegel & Grau

Hardcover, 384 pages

Source: e-ARC from NetGalley


From Goodreads

On a warm spring evening in South Los Angeles, a young man was shot and killed on a sidewalk minutes away from his home, one of hundreds of young men slain in LA every year. His assailant ran down the street, jumped into an SUV, and vanished, hoping to join the vast majority of killers in American cities who are never arrested for their crimes. But as soon as the case was assigned to Detective John Skaggs, the odds shifted. Here is the kaleidoscopic story of the quintessential American murder–one young black man slaying another–and a determined crew of detectives whose creed was to pursue justice at all costs for its forgotten victims. Ghettoside is a fast-paced narrative of a devastating crime, an intimate portrait of detectives and a community bonded in tragedy, and a surprising new lens into the great subject of murder in America–why it happens and how the plague of killings might yet be stopped.

The sad numbers of murders in Los Angeles are not the highest in the country-that goes to my own beloved Chicago.  I wanted to read Ghettoside in part to learn the one murder story Leovy focuses on, but also  to think about what could be applied from LA to the heartbreaking stories here.  This book kept me engaged throughout despite the heavy topic and the statistics.

Ghettoside takes us through the random murder of one young black man in LA, Bryant Tennelle, and also delves into the city’s murder epidemic itself.  Leovy learned the term ghettoside from a homicide detective who picked it up from a Watts gang member to describe his neighborhood:

The term captured the situation nicely, mixing geography and status with the hustler’s poetic precision and perverse conceit.  It was both a place and predicament, and gave a name to that other wordly seclusion that all the violent black pockets of the county had in common…There was a sameness to these places, and the policing that went on in them.  

Leovy looks at the LA police department and its individual homicide investigators, as well as at the offenders, their victims and at witnesses.  Tennelle’s murder is terrible but it is not the only sad story you read about. The men shot everyday in LA each have a story- and Leovy recounts as many as she can as the investigation goes on.  Its just overwhelming how many lives are lost over the course of this book.  I appreciated that Leovy discusses not only the great homicide investigators, but those that have also kind of given up to the “Monster” that is destroying communities.

Leovy makes the reader think about how deep the roots of the ghettoside epidemic go, both in distance and in time.  One must consider the distrust the marginalized have for the police as well as the frustration the police have from community members who won’t help or are unable to help them due to fear of retribution.  The facts that Leovy cites are staggering at times:

From 1994 to 2006, a suspect was arrested in 41% of the 3,300 killings involving black male victims in the city of Los Angeles according to the police department’s own data.

41%!  It not hard to see why communities feel they should be policing their own rather than going to the city.  One of the things that really struck me was a quote about a shooter – I don’t want to say who, but–

If ***** had been your average high school student somewhere else, he might have just been another misfit…  

So many young people aren’t allowed the chance to be an average high school ANYTHING.  This young man ruined his life-and so many others – without maybe ever understanding what he was getting into when he began.  Where are the answers to the ghettoside problems?  Education?  Gun control?  More money to our police departments?  Definitely in better discussions about race and violence.  Ghettoside is definitely one to read and think about.

If you want to read more about Leovy here is a link to an interview with Fresh Air.

Have you read Ghettoside?  Give me your thoughts!

4 stars!

Thank you to Spiegel & Grau and NetGalley for this advance copy in exchange for an honest opinion.

All quotes are taken from an uncorrected proof, and may differ in the final version of the book.


  1. I am currently reading this book, but it’s slow going. The statistics/murders are getting to me. I need time in between to process what the book is telling me. I mean that’s as a compliment… it’s an excellent book and, as you point out, thought-provoking.

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