Mystery Writer George Pelecanos Explores Seedy Side of Washington
When George Pelecanos talks About his latest novel, Hell to Pay, he spends much of his time talking about the city of Washington, specifically the neighborhoods of Mount Pleasant, Adams Morgan, and Anacostia. For Pelecanos, these neighborhoods and the books he writes are inseparable.
"For 10 years Washington D.C., has turned me on," he says by phone from a book-tour stop in Denver. "Writing novels about the city is my life's work."
After eight books in 10 years, the lone practitioner of the hard-boiled D.C. crime novel is getting national attention among both genre fans and the literati, in part for the gritty and thoroughgoingly specific vision of his hometown. He can only think of one other writer--Ed Jones, author of the now-out-of-print 1992 story collection Lost in the City--who has expended as much ink focusing on the neighborhoods surrounding the cluster of patrician office buildings and monuments most people think of when they hear the word "Washington." Pelecanos sounds a little bemused by the lack of interest.
The 42-year-old author certainly knows whereof he speaks, having spent decades in local retail, bartending, and sales before becoming a writer. He's found his literary inspiration among D.C.'s lost souls, and his novels are filled with them: dealers, pimps, boozers, losers, cashiers, corrupt cops, shoe salespeople, line cooks. Pelecanos' characters live in Brentwood or Northeast. They gravitate--depending on race and age--to places like the 9:30 Club, the Ibex, the Black Cat, Rick's, Ben's Chili Bowl, the Florida Avenue Grill, or the Tastee Diner. They listen to locals like the Nighthawks, Fugazi, the Slickee Boys, Scream, and Chuck Brown. They fish on Haines Point. They dump bodies there too.
These names pop up regularly in Hell to Pay and elsewhere in Pelecanos' oeuvre, but not as obligatory, cred-establishing background references. This is a writer who's ready to stop everything and devote several paragraphs to describing a Chuck Brown concert. He talks about punk and go-go as cultural and social forces in the 1980s: "For instance, I would go to the Sylvan Theater to watch Fugazi and Trouble Funk play the same show. You wouldn't have that in too many other cities."
Pelecanos has become a sort of civic historian, and over the past decade his books have reflected a century of D.C. evolution. After establishing his writing career with three flinty novels featuring Greek-American private investigator Nick Stefanos (1992's A Firing Offense, '93's Nick's Trip, and '95's Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go), the author bounced back in time to the '40s for The Big Blowdown, a sort of Stefanos prequel that evokes the promise and dread of postwar Washington. A second series, written in the late '90s, uses two principal characters, Greek-American Dimitri Karas and African-American Marcus Clay, to chronicle what Pelecanos considers D.C.'s three-decade descent into chaos.
Of King Suckerman, his 1997 breakthrough book, which used the nation's bicentennial as a backdrop, Pelecanos says, "With the black-white friendship of the two main characters, there's this sense of optimism, emblematic of an era when everyone was programmed to think, OK, everything's going fine between blacks and whites." The Sweet Forever, set during March of '86, sweeps the reader into a wild-goose chase involving drug dealers, corrupt cops, cokeheads, and March Madness. "In that book," Pelecanos says, "the friendship of Karas and Clay starts to deteriorate." Shame the Devil, set mostly in 1998, closes the series with a vision of a city that has been through the gauntlet of the '90s: Marion Barry's crack troubles, the dream of home rule turned into a nightmare, white cops accidentally shooting black undercover agents. The main characters aren't faring much better: Karas is unemployed and a bereaved father. Late University of Maryland basketball star/tragic figure Len Bias is referred to repeatedly by the characters; Pelecanos describes him as "a sort of John Lennon figure," whose death becomes emblematic of a city that had lost its dream of self-government.
Hell to Pay, then, might be a D.C. of the post-apocalypse. The slate of Greek-American ne'er-do-wells that populates Pelecanos' earlier novels has been wiped clean in favor of new central characters, first introduced in last year's Right as Rain. Derek Strange, a fiftysomething black private eye, is now the voice crying in the inside-the-Beltway wilderness. His sidekick, Terry Quinn, is an alcoholic Irish-American ex-cop who was bumped from the force after accidentally shooting a black cop. Strange is a bit of an anomaly: an aging detective who listens to the Commodores and coaches Pee Wee football, a mentor to the young who sneaks down to Chinatown to get hand jobs. In other words, he's a good guy, a little out of step with the younger generation, with a flaw that's a little too embarrassing to be called tragic.
"I think I know Strange better than any other character, actually," Pelecanos says. "He's a certain type of Washingtonian that I've come to know. He's more fleshed out. And you find people like him all over the city. These are older guys, who spend their time coaching young peoples' football teams, mentoring them. They stay in D.C., they stay in their neighborhoods, trying to help people. I want to illuminate that."
Strange goes after the killer of a young boy on his football team. In the process, he gets entangled with local crime boss Granville Oliver. Quinn, meanwhile, gets into hot water as he tries to rescue a young prostitute from the streets. There are several subplots, and the strands don't all come together in the end; Pelecanos is admittedly more interested in where these characters take you than how the storylines resolve themselves. They take you to Anacostia and Brentwood--the terra incognita of the nation's capital. It's clear from the book that Pelecanos has done his research in that portion of D.C.
"With Right as Rain and Hell to Pay, I wanted to get into Anacostia, while I was still relatively young," he says. "I spent a lot of time hanging around with federal investigators" working on racketeering cases.
"It wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be. As a white guy, I was probably safer than I would have been if I was black. Still, I knew it wouldn't be that easy to stand around some of those corners when I was 60."
What is most remarkable--or ominous--about the Washington depicted in Hell to Pay is the complex ethical system that has developed in its marginal neighborhoods. Pelecanos agrees that his earlier books have a much clearer moral agenda. King Suckerman, The Sweet Forever, and Shame the Devil are driven by a desire for retribution. The bad guys lose. In Hell to Pay, the line between right and wrong is a lot vaguer when Pelecanos introduces Oliver, a criminal who functions as a community leader of sorts.
Oliver is based on gang leader Tommy Edelin, the first convicted killer sentenced to the death penalty in D.C. in nearly 30 years. "I sat in on [Edelin's 2001] trial," Pelecanos says. "He was an interesting guy who came out of the projects, and was very aware of the problems that the people there faced." Like Edelin, Oliver winds up in prison. But the book leaves behind a tough question: Are the only people who understand what's going on in these neighborhoods behind bars?
Hell to Pay sometimes seems overwhelmed by the complexities of the city it describes. It's difficult to know whether to blame Pelecanos or Washington. Racial tension, for instance, agitates most of the characters' conversations about music, food, and sex in ways that are almost dogmatic. There's also the problem of women, which may have to do with the genre. If Pelecanos' female characters are "fleshed out," that usually means that they don't have any clothes on. He's pretty forthcoming about that aspect of his writing.
"I write about what I know," Pelecanos says. "I don't understand women, even after 16 years of being married to the same one. My publisher hates this when I say it, but I'm stretching it whenever I include them as major characters. I'm suspicious about them."
He admits that he's subjective about choosing which parts of the city to include too, and which to exclude. Sometimes it makes his vision of D.C. a little surreal: mostly male, composed of separate, mutually exclusive worlds. But then in Hell to Pay, exclusion seems to be what Washington is all about.