Hearing George Pelecanos speak about Washington, DC you hear him reflect on how the life of the city since WW II has mirrored all of what has been good and bad about the American experience during that time. It is as though Washington DC is microcosm of everything going on in the US over those years. In his novels, which are all set in and around DC, he touches on all the big themes; the returning soldiers in The Big Blowdown and the small business explosion, the sixties Race Riots in Hard Revolution and the 1980s drug wars in The Sweet Forever. Pelecanos is getting some attention this month with the release of his new title The Night Gardener. It is well justified and I have been reading his books for a number of years now and have all of them in my collection.
This week there were two articles in the New York Times and I suspect there will be more over the coming months in news titles across the US. As the articles point out, his writing life has not been easy but I am glad he has stuck with it. I was also in DC around the time he began to write full time and it was very hard to like the city. Everyone was on coke; we had a mayor caught in the act, newscasters were in trouble for it and a top athlete killed himself with it. The city had one of the largest murder rates in the US with over 2000 killed in 1988 - and it is a very small city. I couldn't wait to get out, but Pelecanos' novels offer a truer, more complex view of the city that in the 1980s was hard to appreciate. Gentrification has come to DC in subsequent years and I wonder how he will deal with this trend.
I first came across his work, while walking through the aisles at a BookExpo (Los Angeles) and I happened to pick up a ARC which was two titles bound together. The book sat next to my bed for six months and when I finally read Hell To Play I immediately read the other novel Right As Rain. I was hooked and I have been able to pick up first editions of his first three novels which are hard to find. Interestingly, St Martin's was his initial publisher and he didn't do so well with them. In my experience, St Martin's seems to find good mystery writers but can't take them to the next level. Pelecanos has been compared to Richard Price and Denis Lehane - both excellent authors - but I believe Pelecanos breaths more culture and texture into his novels that either of these authors.
Pelecanos has also recently edited an omnibus of short detective crime fiction published by Akashic. DC Noir follows on from Brooklyn Noir which refected short stories located in Brooklyn NY and was excellent. I haven't got the DC one yet but will be looking for it.
Here is an interview with NPR on the novel True Grit which is one of Pelecanos' favorite books.