Quick tip, should you ever find yourself alone in the interview room at the police headquarters of Prince George’s County, Maryland: don’t go to sleep. The officers will see you through the peephole and assume you’re guilty. Anyone innocent finding themselves in that windowless, 8ft by 8ft room paces around, bounces on their toes and sobs. Only the guilty snooze there. It’s known as the ‘felony nap’.
Del Quentin Wilber learned a lot as he tailed the PG homicide squad during February 2013. His account of the experience is a non-fiction version of faction, the genre in which novelists incorporate real people into their stories. Coming at it from the opposite end of the spectrum, Wilber presents his facts as if in a novel. It makes for an eminently readable book. A drug dealer drives slowly past a cop ‘delivering a blatant eye-fuck’. Another cop is suspicious of someone’s confession: ‘This has been too easy … this is a world in which people lie, and then lie about their lies.’ Equally Wilber knows when he should let the facts talk for themselves, as with the 15-year-old boy who
cradled his friend’s bloody head in his arms and watched as his buddy struggled to breathe. He heard police sirens and grew frightened, at which point he laid his friend’s head on the pavement and ran, leaving his friend to die alone.
We all love a good murder, but don’t expect any Agatha Christie-style cosiness here. PG is one of America’s poorest counties, where cigarettes are sold in singles and a favourite drink is Sprite mixed with cough syrup. Tear-mark tattoos under the eye are often ‘a memorial to a slain gang brother or the “tally mark” of a kill’, and autopsy doctors no longer take an absence of track marks on the arms or between toes as a sign that the victim wasn’t on heroin — the drug is now so pure that addicts are snorting it. A teenager is shot for his new Timberlands, and a father is murdered in front of his two-year-old son. There’s farce in there too: a gang of criminals plan to torch a car to destroy evidence, only to find that no one has remembered the matches.
The cops are pretty colourful characters themselves. One puts rap on his car radio when he’s tailing suspects, another who’s always late is known as Detective En Route, and yet another is a devotee of herbal erection enhancers: ‘He provides a full-throated endorsement of one he nicknamed the Diamond Cutter.’ But, boy, do these guys know their job. They keep themselves between the witness and the door in the interview room, as ‘when a detective sits between a man and his freedom, the investigator cannot be ignored’. They ask about a completely unconnected case — say, the theft of some Marlboro Reds — to lull the suspect into a false sense of confidence so he’ll offer his DNA voluntarily. They pretend to admire tattoos so they can look for incriminating knife scars. And all the time they play the game: adopting the ‘case face’ at crime scenes (‘nobody wants to get caught by a news photographer smiling over a corpse’), and living away from their patch — ‘you don’t want to eat where you shit’.
Being fact rather than fiction prevents the book from giving a full set of neat endings. Much of the work depends on slog rather than lightbulb moments, as with Greg McDonald, the department’s best interrogator: ‘The first eight hours belong to them. Then they are mine.’ But this means you value the tiny breakthroughs all the more when they do arrive. An elderly woman is murdered for her cheap TV set, which the cops work out must have been lowered onto the rough ground behind her house. When — eventually — Detective Brooks traces what he thinks might be the missing set, he examines its back and finds it caked with dirt. Brooks is ‘so pumped he can’t think’, and as the reader you feel like cheering.
The squad’s achievements are all the more impressive for occurring in a community whose no.1 rule is ‘do not snitch’. One 300-pound murder victim has to be prised from behind the steering wheel of her car, a task that takes ages. As one of the detectives puts it, in this place ‘not even the dead cooperate’.