As Del explained to me, his first challenge was gaining the acceptance of the homicide squad’s detectives. “At first they were not super-excited to have me there – they don’t like outsiders much – but by the end, I think they even liked having me around to offer a different perspective. I started to pick up their gallows humour too, which had jarred with me at first. There was a moment when one of the detectives and I were standing over a corpse. They had nothing to go on and he just said to me “why can’t you be more like ‘Castle’ (a fictional US TV novelist who uses his “genius” to help the New York police solve murders)?”
“I think they understood that I was sincere. They have all read the book and said that it was true. The only complaint I received was that I got one guy’s eye colour wrong! I said they were hazel and he said they’re green. I can’t tell the difference….”
“A Good Month for Murder” gives the reader a visceral sense of the detectives’ gruelling work. Indeed, it seems remarkable that most do not burn out sooner.
Del says “People forget that these guys mostly deal with the worst 1% of the population. That does get inside their minds and is hard on many levels. Everyone lies and you are dealing all day with people who are not very helpful to you. You’re also working in bad conditions for a cash strapped municipal government. And what you are dealing with is this awful thing -death. They handle it by using humour and their strong esprit de corps. But some still can’t make it. There was one detective when I was there who was leaving after only a year. He had invested too much of himself in a murder case and it was driving him crazy. The others do it by focusing on the job, the chase. They are very good at separating the emotional part of their minds from the ‘chase’ part. They get really into the challenge of solving the case.”
“For me, I saw 27 corpses and had some PTSD issues by the end of it”. Of the incidents covered in the book, “the worst was not the actual murders but the video from the Nicoh Mayhew case. I saw it over and again to the point that I was screaming for Mayhew to escape, like I was watching a horror movie. That’s when I knew I had problems. It was so real to me because I had seen his corpse with his brains blown out in the hallway and that video they found leading up to it gave me some nightmares. That one was hard, watching someone die like that in front of you”.
Given this bleak subject matter, one of the more surprising aspects of the book is that it is often hilarious. As Del says, “the detectives’ humour is totally a defence mechanism. I hope people who read the book can see it for what it is. You know, things like standing over a corpse talking about golden showers …. if it was fiction people would be going ‘whoah, that’s too much’. But this is real. I just wrote what I saw and still had to cut a lot of the humour out because I didn’t have space for it. I could probably write a second book just about cop jokes!”
“People have asked me ‘how do you know they didn’t tone things down when you were around?’ and all I can say is ‘have you read the book?’ There are things in there…well, I think as time went on they just forgot I was there or didn’t care anymore! The humour and conversations just got more intense”.
“I think part of it too is the influence of reality television. Twenty years ago there would have been more of a backlash around ‘can you not put in the stuff I said about having sex with my wife’. But now with reality television we feel we are supposed to be really open and some people push that even further than expected. Anyway, it made my life easier as a journalist!”
A Good Month for Murder’s arrival on the bookshelves is timely, given how controversial policing in America has become since Del did his research in 2013. The compelling insight it provides into the world of the Homicide Squad is all the more valuable in light of subsequent events.
As Del explains, “In a way, the book is like a Rorschach test. I wrote it the way I saw things happen, without judgement. Some readers will think ‘these are the meanest guys ever, they are outlandish…’, others will read it as ‘they are so dedicated and work so hard”.
For the detectives themselves, wider social and policing considerations barely arise. “They just want to survive their busy day and solve these murders. I kind of admired that that’s what their focus was - the case in front of them. The couple of times wider issues were raised, they said ‘Dude, I don’t have time to even think about that. I have two open murders on my books right now. It’s complicated and I’m just a homicide detective. What am I going to do about it all?’”
As a long-term crime correspondent in tough cities such as Baltimore and Washington, DC, Del was not surprised by the nature of the crimes encountered during his stint with the Squad. But the intensity of the detective’s workload was striking. “There is some downtime but they are really busy - there is so much going on. And it’s not like on the TV, like CSI where it goes ‘oh my God! I got the fingerprint, we did some amazing stuff with it and, there we are, case solved inside an hour’. In reality, sometimes you are thinking ‘oh, why didn’t they follow up on that clue right away?’ Well, it’s because they’ve been up for 48 hours straight and then they had to go off to another murder scene, they went to someone else’s demise.”
Reality written this well takes you to places that fiction cannot easily reach and “A Good Month for Murder” is destined to become a classic of its kind.
Available to buy now from Amazon