Pelecanos, Locked and Loaded
I started reading George Pelecanos in 1997, when he published King Suckerman, which is, of all things, a fictional homage to the “blaxploitation” films of the 1970s. Combining the eccentric flash of Pulp Fiction, the noir soul of David Goodis, and the idiosyncratic heart of Elmore Leonard, this wildly violent novel effectively evokes the comic book heroics of the Superfly era while at the same time sucker-punching us with the humanity at its core. Naturally, I was hooked and immediately backtracked to all of Pelecanos’s earlier novels, especially enjoying those featuring salesman-turned-PI Nick Stefanos.
Lately, Pelecanos has become almost as well known for his film work as his novel writing—first as a producer and writer for the universally acclaimed HBO series The Wire (Entertainment Weekly recently declared it the best TV show of all time) and then as a writer for the current HBO series Treme. Those who have watched Pelecanos stretch his wings on television shouldn’t have been surprised. He has always been more than a crime writer. Over the course of his nearly 20 novels, Pelecanos has constructed a multifaceted fictional universe united by a common landscape—the streets of Washington, D.C.—and featuring an interlocking set of characters that eventually would span several generations. Pelecanos’s characters from different books intermingle with one another in Faulknerian fashion, and individual novels go back and forth in time, allowing the author to evoke the same streets and neighborhoods during different decades, from the 1940s through the present, and build context both in terms of character development and landscape.
It’s a remarkable fictional world, nearly Dickensian in its portrayal of working-class lives in Washington, both those that go horribly wrong and those that carve small, personal triumphs from the inhospitable world around them. As the scope of his fictional world has widened, one’s respect for Pelecanos as a writer has grown significantly. And yet, there’s a part of me that yearns for those early head-banging books. My yearnings were satisfied with the arrival in 2011 of The Cut and with the forthcoming novel The Double, to be published in October.
Pelecanos introduces a new character in these novels, Spero Lucas, who, like John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, comes to the aid of people who have lost something and keeps 40% of the take (McGee kept half). In The Double, Lucas helps out a fortysomething D.C. woman with bad taste in men. Her latest wrong choice has stripped her of a valuable painting and her self-respect. In a kind of homage not only to MacDonald (especially The Deep Blue Good-by) but also to Charles Willeford and Don Carpenter (all three are mentioned in the acknowledgments), Pelecanos reinterprets and updates the theme of the charismatic sociopath who revels in draining the souls of his willing victims, bringing a heightened sensitivity and social consciousness to the story without losing the visceral terror that drives the narrative. Those who know their crime-fiction history will love the references to earlier masters, but, finally, it’s Pelecanos, locked and loaded, back in his wheelhouse, that is cause for celebration.
BILL OTT is the editor of ALA’s Booklist.