David Mills: you didn’t know him – but you’ll miss him

Stone the crows! David Mills is dead at 48! This is very bad news indeed for the lovers of literature who admire his work, despite not knowing who he was or who do not consider his work fine fiction. Because Mills was one of those authors for our age whose achievements are less obscure than ignored – a television writer.

Mills wrote crime fiction TV, episodes for NYPD Blue, a series about a family struggling to survive in a drug saturated Baltimore neighbourhood, The Corner and Treme, set in a New Orleans community in the aftermath of Katrina (it launches in the US this month). But his masterpiece was his work on The Wire, a five series drama about the drug trade’s influence on just about every aspect of public life in contemporary Baltimore.

The Wire is Dickens updated, a social history of a city in fictional form that presents the pursuit of power in policing and politics and among drug dealers and waterside workers, journalists and teachers. The plot is as dense as anything in Dickens, the enormous cast of characters as compelling as any he created and, because they are from our own age, a good deal more recognisable. You may have never met anybody like Lady Dedlock from Bleak House or Mr Jaggers in Great Expectations but I bet you know long-suffering single mothers like Beaddie Russell and supremely self serving solicitors like Maurice Levy in The Wire.

This is literature with pictures and the people responsible are the writers. Not the directors who delight cineastes or even the actors who made detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) and Omar Little, a robber of drug dealers (Michael K Williams), such compelling characters, it is the writers who made it work.

Mills and his colleagues imagined plots as unpredictable as real-life, scripted so cleverly and carefully that it takes more than one viewing to work out what is going on, with dialogue that demonstrates how acts of everyday cruelty and extraordinary crime are commissioned in the banal language of the everyday.

And it is easy to understand the details of the lives the writers created for their characters. In their frequent failings and occasional honourable acts the dozens of principal players in The Wire behave in ways that are universally understandable, albeit rarely acceptable.

The Wire, like those other great multi-volume American political novels with moving images, Deadwood and The West Wing, works because of its extraordinary stories.

And yet while his TV writing peers respected Mills his work was never reviewed in the way novels are. This is more than a little odd. While The Wire never achieved a mass-market audience Mills’s work on the series was still seen by an audience of a size few literary novelists can imagine.

It demonstrates the disconnect between the literature we delight in and the authors we respect. Certainly the scriptwriter and novelist need different skills but both (at least outside academic creative writing cultures) are storytellers.

And writers like Mills are the heirs of the 19th and early 20th century greats, Dickens and Dreiser, Hugo and Zola, who produced works of art for mass audiences.

I have no idea if Mills ever met starlets so dumb as to want to sleep with the writer but I hope he did. He merited much more praise than he received during his sadly short life. His death is a loss to great television and literature – which are much the same thing.