Steven Powell is the editor of Conversations with James Ellroy (2012) and 100 American Crime Writers(2012). He has written several articles for the British Politics Review, blogs about crime fiction at VenetianVase.co.uk, and co-organized the “James Ellroy: Visions of Noir” conference at the University of Liverpool. His most recent work is James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan 2016).
This week, the Home Office released statistics revealing that in 2015 the police in England and Wales fired their guns only seven times. Even allowing for the usual caveats, this statistic would no doubt seem incredible to the world-weary Homicide detectives of the regally named Prince George’s County, which borders Washington DC.
In A Good Month for Murder: The Inside Story of a Homicide Squad, journalist and author Del Quentin Wilber details the investigations of twelve homicides which occurred in February 2013, a month which saw an unprecedented spike in murders for the area. The facts, figures and statistics of the crimes play a crucial role in Wilber’s narrative, revealing the politics of policing, and the homicide squad come under intense pressure in the corridors of power to clear cases. This leads to an equally important theme in Wilber’s writing: the personal lives of the policeman and the intense emotional strain of their work. There are strong parallels here with David Simon’s Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (1991) as the highly-sexed and often sexually frustrated detectives juggle crumbling marriages with the gruelling hours police work demands. The candid discussion of sex is matched by the black humour detectives employ to offset the horrors of their work. Take Detective Ben Brown, a devout Catholic and father of two who has become so cynically hardened to murder in his police career that only one event has ever brought tears to his eye-when a police officer shot and killed his mistress one particularly hot summer and left their eleven-month-old daughter to boil to death in a car which reached 125 degrees.
The officers’ interweaving stories are retold with the sort of fine eye for detail that you would expect from a Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist of Wilber’s standing. More importantly, the author understands the history of true crime writing and brings it to life here in what might be described as a modern version of the non-fiction novel, that controversial and often misunderstood literary sub-genre Truman Capote dubiously claimed to have invented over fifty years ago. Equally compelling is Prince George’s County ‘the ugly stepchild of the Washington region’ which looms large over the story at all times:
It has little of the lustre of the gentrifying District, the charm of historic Alexandria, Virginia, or the leafy suburban aura of either Maryland’s Montgomery County or Virginia’s Fairfax County. In 2011, when former Prince George’s county Jack B. Johnson pleaded to corruption charges, admitting he had accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes while in office, and was sentenced to seven years in federal prison, the region reacted with a shrug: Well, that’s PG for you.
Ultimately, as with the practitioners of any art or profession, Wilber knows that the detectives of Prince George’s County are far from perfect, and sometimes corrupt, but, and this was especially interesting to read in light of recent controversies surrounding the shooting of unarmed African-Americans and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the reader will be left in little doubt as to where his sympathy lies. Black people are most often the victims of these crimes and the police are there to protect and serve them as with every citizen. The dedication to the book lingered with me long afterwards, as did so much else of this fascinating read:
To the men and women who toil in the heart of darkness so the rest of us don’t have to.