Washington underbelly

What It Was

George Pelecanos Orion Books, £9.99;

Kindle: $1.34 United States/Europe

Review: Billy O’Callaghan

Over the past 20 years, George Pelecanos has quietly insinuated himself into the consciousness as one of the foremost voices in American crime fiction. Author of 18 critically-lauded novels, and a featured writer on the hit television series, The Wire, his reputation rests on a bedrock of tight, fast-paced prose, meticulous plotting, finely tuned characters and an incredible authenticity in depicting time and place. He understands the storytelling process as well as any writer at work today.

What It Was does not disappoint.

Washington DC in the summer 1972 is a city on the brink of political uproar. But in the slums a different dread holds sway, one far greater and more pressing than Watergate. A maniac is loose and killing his way through the ghetto. Parole-jumper Robert Lee ‘Red Fury’ Jones, a gun for hire, has just gone into business for himself. One doper is already dead, another mob-connected dealer takes a hole in the chest but survives. Both are robbed, and among the haul is a ring, a costume piece of strictly sentimental value, that must be recovered.

The police, led by Frank Vaughn, are hunting a monster. Derek Strange, a private investigating ex-cop, and one-time partner of Vaughn, is the hired help brought in to recover the glass. Strange has passed through the pages of Pelecanos books before, but little is lost to those who have not read the earlier novels.

The story is relentless, but the true magic exists in the attention to detail. The author’s meticulous depiction of place lands the reader in a hot, sultry, vice-ridden city, with revolution in fullest swing.

There are wars going on: one in the streets, a kind of guttural evolution process, and a big one overseas, the vibrations of which touch everyone, those who have been and those who skipped. This is a tough world, the perfect stage for sun-washed noir, and Pelecanos does not hold back, exposing and scrutinising the capital’s underbelly, where the air is cracked and the population is 80% black and easily ignored.

There is manipulation involved, working the senses to virtual overload: the image of swinging bellbottoms, afro cuts and hot pants; the ever-present soulful, funky soundtrack; the flashes of violence that explode like dropped bombs; the buzzing dialogue deeply of its time, yet somehow never straying into stereotype.

The book’s jacket has a quote from Stephen King proclaiming Pelecanos as ‘Perhaps the greatest living crime writer’. Quite a claim, given that Elmore Leonard is still working, but such hyperbole is not wildly overblown. This is a writer in full control of his material and fully understanding of his strengths. Lovers of crime fiction should not miss what he has to say.


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