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Book Review: What It Was by George Pelecanos

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Most people know George Pelecanos as a noir novelist. I know him as a Washington, DC historian with a side job as a damned good noir novelist. All of his novels take place in the area where he was born and grew up, and still lives to this day. Silver Spring, Maryland, is like a lot of the small towns that once surrounded Washington, DC, but are now part of that city. When Pelecanos writes, he brings back those bygone ‘burbs, mentioning the DC of today and the one of 40 years ago often within the same sentence. He writes about Washington DC and its absorbed ‘burbs in a style very similar to what Mike Royko and Studs Terkel did for Chicago. He makes the city come alive, just as Royko and Terkel did. He may change some names and dates to protect the guilty, but readers of the Metro section of the Washington Post will recognize more than a couple characters and incidents. In the Author’s Note to his new Novel, Pelecanos gives it away for once. He admits that the person our protagonists are chasing, one Red “Fury” Jones, is “very loosely based on the exploits of notorious D.C. criminal Raymond ‘Cadillac’ Smith.”

And now the book. Derek Strange is a stranger no longer. That’s the good news. The better news is he’s back in What It Was with his cop shop sidekick, Hound Dog Vaughn. Strange is a central character in some of Pelecanos’ earlier books beginning around 2001, but we haven’t heard from him in quite a while, until last year, that is. Now we hear of him as a peripheral character in the first of Pelecanos’s two books published in 2011, The Cut, which takes place in today’s DC. What It Was is the second from 2011, and it’s set in the DC of 40 years ago. It’s mostly the Derek Strange and Red Fury show. If you don’t much care for noir crime stories, you don’t have much to look forward to in Pelecanos’ books. But if you’re looking for real-world crime stories, punctuated with blood and bullets, you’ll find them in just about anything with a Pelecanos tagline. Pelecanos has been putting out quality noir for 20 years and he brings you the real Washington DC, not the cloistered government political crime. (Read what the hometown street news has to say about him here.)

I don’t know whose idea it was (probably the author) to put all the music detail on Pelecanos’ Hachette Books website, but I think it was a stroke of genius. I have a friend who’s said more than once, “I never listen to music.” For most of us, music is what we associate with the memories that are hard-wired in our brains. “Oh, man, that song was playing when I first met [insert name]!” Or, “Remember this? This was the first concert that you took me to.” Births, deaths, marriages, arrests and championships are all memorialized with music by somebody somewhere every second of every minute of every day.

Music, tied in with Pelecanos’ descriptions and the prose of the book, makes these places come alive, and it’s obvious that Pelecanos himself has lived that same music in these very places. (OK, OK, maybe not the crime scenes which frequent his books, or else he’d be writing his stories from a Greybar Hotel somewhere in the DC area.) The music is a central theme of all of Pelecanos’ books, and you’ll see it in his television shows, such as The Wire, and Treme, and movies, too. Oh, wait a minute! That’s one gimme that Granolaville hasn’t picked up on, if you can believe it. It’s a cash cow waiting to be born. And if Pelecanos has any sense — and he does — he should put out the films on his own (or arrange backers on his own), rather than let the fantasy world of Granolaville water down the stories and plots, or worse yet, add the typical Hollywood bells, whistles, and treacly over-production. Find an angel with noir-ish tastes, George, and the film will be a monster.

Pelecanos ties music to scenes in his books in a manner which adds authenticity and, more importantly, personality. To the characters, to the scene and to the overall story. Google can show you what an address looks like, but Google’s photo is sterile and antiseptic compared to the color, texture, and personality – life! – that Pelecanos adds to a neighborhood or street, or even a neighborhood diner or shoe store in the District of Columbia. [There ya go, Google. Be sure to give me credit when you adopt this idea.] The music he mentions throughout his books is clearly the music of his life. And the stories he writes are the music of our lives.

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