Del Quentin Wilber is the author of the new book A Good Month for Murder: The Inside Story of a Homicide Squad, which looks at the Prince George's County, Maryland, homicide unit. He also has written the book Rawhide Down. He covers the Justice Department for the Los Angeles Times, and he previously worked for The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland.
Q: How did you get the Prince George’s County police to grant you so much access?
A: The police chief, Mark Magaw, is the son of a Secret Service agent in my first book, Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan. I sent it to him and asked if I could shadow his detectives. He was very open and transparent, giving me complete access to his squad. I was quite lucky.
Q: You describe Prince George’s County as “a microcosm of the new America.” How typical is the county, and how does its crime rate reflect that of other communities?
A: PG County is one of the most diverse and fascinating places I have ever visited. It's diverse in terms of geography -- spanning everything from farmland to gritty, inner-city-like neighborhoods. It's also diverse demographically -- it's a majority minority community. It also neighbors the nation's capital. It's a fascinating place.
It is more violent than the typical suburb, in part, because it has high levels of poverty and other social problems more often associated with cities than suburbs. It has your more typical gang- or drug-related homicides. But it also has its share of "red ball" slayings of completely innocent people.
Q: At a time when issues surrounding the police are in the news, what can your book tell readers about police work and the issues surrounding it?
A: It shows what the job is really like. This is pure reportage, and I hope it informs the debate. I have noticed that this book is a Rorschach test of sorts for readers. I make no value judgments. I engage in very little analysis and opinion.
Some readers will think these detectives go too far; others will read it and feel they don’t go far enough. My job is to truthfully lay out what I saw and how it happened, and I trust readers to reach their own conclusions.
Q: What surprised you most in the course of the time you spent with the homicide squad?
A: How hard (and exhilarating) the job was -- physically and psychologically. I thought I was a total pro, having covered crime for like eight years in Baltimore and D.C.
But that experience did not prepare me for this. I worked nonstop. I was awake for 48 straight hours. I fell asleep pumping gas. I fell asleep at a red light. My psyche was battered by all the corpses.
The hardest thing, strangely, was watching constant replays of video security depicting a homicide. Every time I watched it, I wanted to tell the victim to run faster, to get out of the way. He didn’t.
My experience gave me a much better appreciation for what homicide detectives -- and cops -- do. It can be a hard, hard job.
I think this constant stress is what leads to the gallows humor. There is lots of that in the book. I laugh out loud thinking about the off-color jokes and pranks. And I still get chills when I think about how a detective doggedly solved a murder and found a key piece of evidence.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I cover the Justice Department for the Los Angeles Times. I'm mulling other book ideas. Nothing firm. Not sure I'm ready to tackle another project.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I hope readers get a better appreciation for the difficulty of the job and the special type of person it takes to do it well.
There are few jobs that are more important than speaking for the dead. The dead can’t speak for themselves, and these detectives are their voices. It’s important to know how they do their jobs and why it matters, especially as some places in this country are witnessing a surge in deadly violence.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Del Wilber, please click here.