WASHINGTON, DC, February 16, 2012 — Reading the books of George Pelecanos is like watching “home movies.” At least, that’s true for anyone with a longtime familiarity of this capital city.
All of his crime stories take place in and around Washington, D.C. In telling his tales, he names the streets, bars, restaurants, stores, radio stations, theaters, and often people. He captures the essence of the area and, most often, its dark side. That’s why Esquire magazine dubbed him “the poet laureate of the D.C. crime world.”
The reader gladly follows with an interest bordering on scrutiny, as Mr. Pelecanos leads the way down familiar streets, even when those environs hold a sense of foreboding.
Just this past August, his book number 17, The Cut, introduced a new Pelecanos character. Spero Lucas, newly returned from Iraq, takes on an investigation which begins a new career for him as a finder. Lucas will retrieve and return anything a client has lost, and for just 40% of its monetary value. That is “the cut.”
In his “just-out” book (number 18, but who’s counting?), What It Was, the author brings back a character of four previous stories: Derek Strange, a career private investigator.
Pelecanos’s own career began in 1992, with a “slush pile” or “over the transom” manuscript. It was picked out of the pile, read, published, and earned some good reviews. One of his most popular early books, “Shoedog,” will soon become, as they say, “a major motion picture.”
Pelecanos Writes for the Small Screen As Well
In addition to his novels, however, the prolific Pelecanos co-produced and wrote on all five seasons of the realistic, gritty HBO series, “The Wire.”
He also worked as producer and writer for HBO’s “The Pacific.” One of the best episodes of that WWII series was about the G.I. who falls for a Greek girl. Being first-generation Greek himself, Mr. Pelecanos captured the nuances of the family culture. Mr. P. is currently involved in the writing and production for the third season of the HBO series, “Treme,” which takes place in post-Katrina New Orleans.
What It Was is a story told at the bar of a Georgia Avenue joint named Leo’s. Two men agree that it’s a good day for drinking and story telling. Sitting in front of a Johnny Walker black and a Heineken green, let the story begin. Derek Strange, P.I., is the teller and Nick Stefanos, a familiar Pelecanos character, is the listener who says those magic words every storyteller loves to hear: “We got all afternoon.”
If this were a 1940s film noir, one would see the calendar pages flipping backward until they stop at … 1972.
This is fine with me, because “the summer of ‘72” is one of my all-time favorite seasons. I won’t go into why because, as Strange says to Stefanos just before launching into his story: “This ain’t about me.”
Like most of his books, this novel has a soundtrack worked into the narration, dialogue, and fabric of the story. In this case, many of the songs mentioned are pulled from 1972 rock, soul and funk. Jukeboxes of bars and radios of amped-up muscle cars punch out this music. En passant, the author may tell the song, the artist, and some background of the recording without missing a beat of the action. The reader often feels like a listener in a bar or riding in the backseat of a red convertible speeding down 11th Street toward no good.
The dialogue is “for real.” It has a film noir quality but uses robust contemporaneous slang and street-smart expressions. The reader can sometimes feel like he’s listening in on a conversation between a couple of real-life hoods discussing the person they just “offed” or their next job. He might come to feel in need of a witness protection program. As an authority on guns and cars, the author provides details which keep everything believable as the story rolls along.
Pelecanos Follows in the Sam Spade Tradition
Call the following “honest full disclosure” or “name-dropping” (maybe it’s both), but I learned about this book from the author before it came off the press or generated any advance publicity. Over lunch at the Cafe Deluxe in Cleveland Park, last July, George told my son Nick and me about a book he was putting the finishing touches on. That book was What It Was.
In What It Was, Derek Strange, like his white predecessor Sam Spade of “The Maltese Falcon,” doesn’t “put up much of a front” when it comes to offices. He can’t even afford the kind of sign he wants outside of his 9th and Upshur Street place of business.
But also like Spade, and in the best film noir tradition, a woman walks into his office and plays a significant role in changing things. She’s not Brigid O’Shaughnessey; she is Maybelline Walker, and there isn’t much she doesn’t have, except for a lost ring with “sentimental value.” That story fools the P.I. for about two seconds. Still, as Spade said, he knew her money was real.
Derek Strange, who was once on the D.C. police force, is still friends with a white MPD detective named Frank “Hound Dog” Vaughn. The two men team in trying to track down a ruthless killer called “Red Fury.” Red is based on a real-life criminal who enjoyed a rampage in D.C. in the early 1970s.
An eye-to-eye encounter occurs between Strange and Red at the Carter Barron amphitheater at 16th and Colorado Avenue. Washington’s own Roberta Flack is performing, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” The superb singer-pianist had begun her show business career just a few years before at Henry Yaffe’s eponymous Mr. Henry’s on Capitol Hill.
An eclectic cast of characters populate the story: Red’s girlfriend Coco; the big D.C. numbers man who prides himself on never having killed a woman or a child; two Italian hit men from New York who are uncomfortable in the unfamiliar capital city; and a few prostitutes, black and white, who decorate the scenery and sing that summer’s white-bread hit, “Alone Again (Naturally).” Then there’s that elusive ring, which bounces around like a glittering ping-pong ball.
Exciting times adroitly captured and recreated by “Washington’s own George Pelecanos.” And along with everything else, that summer news broke about some kind of bungled break-in at a downtown building called the Watergate. It got some press.
The Summer of ‘72. I remember it well. But”this isn’t about me.” George Pelecanos remembers it well enough to suit me, And the reader will enjoy discovering it or reliving it. In either case, it’s a great ride.
Vance Garnett’s writings have appeared in many publications and have won the praise of such luminaries as Paul Harvey, William Safire, and Shirley Povich. Vance, who calls himself “a lover of all things Washington,” has shared his life experiences and knowledge of D.C. with the Washington Historical Society the Kiwanis clubs of the area, and the Kojo Nnamdi Show on PBS.
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