Review: What it Was by George Pelecanos

I’m a big fan of the work of George Pelecanos. The DC Quartet is up there with James Ellroy’s LA Quartet and David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet in my very humble opinion. He writes action as well as just about anybody in the business and his sense of plot is also top-tier. So when I had the chance to grab What It Was I didn’t hesitate.

Derek Strange, a regular Pelecanos player, recounts the story of Red Jones to another of his major players, Nick Stefanos. Jones is a bad-ass hard man who decides to light up the DC streets one hot summer in 1972 when he goes on a crime spree. The carnage begins when he shoots a wretched heroin-tester by the name of Bobby Odum and takes what little money he has along with a fancy-looking ring and some Roberta Flack tickets, both of which he gives to his girlfriend, a stunning, Amazonian madam called Coco Watkins.

Strange is dragged into it when he is hired by a maths tutor, with a serious set of curves and a story that doesn’t quite add up, to find the missing ring. At the same time a Detective Frank Vaughan, a former police partner of Strange, is investigating the murder of Odum. Both men end up chasing Jones and his equally ferocious partner, Alfonzo, as they cut a swathe through DC’s criminal element.

One thing I’ve always loved about Pelecanos is his attention to period detail – the clothes, the cars, the hair, and especially the music – without ever sacrificing the pace of the story. Which is why What It Was is something of a disappointment.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad novel, in fact, I’m not sure Pelecanos is capable of writing a bad novel, but it’s not in the class of The Big Blowdown or King Suckerman, either. The problem here is that the period detail, once such a great servant of Pelecanos’ peerless plots, in places overwhelms the story. At one point, towards the end of the story, two major opposing characters end up at the Roberta Flack concert. This should have been the source of some serious tension, but Pelecanos instead drowns the setpiece in unnecessary detail about Robert Flack’s gig, and music, and loses momentum. In fact, it knocked me out of the story for several pages.

Another hefty paragraph earlier in the novel has Strange pondering the fact that he’s in the middle of a ‘cultural revolution that was happening’. Is anybody that self-aware about the time they’re living in? Possibly they are, but whilst the character is rather loaded with beers? That I’m not so sure about. It almost felt like the addition of detail for detail’s sake.

There are some other moments when the details feel too over-worked; like a master painter, and Pelecanos is a master, have no doubt, who obsesses over the details to the detriment of the overall canvas.

If this sounds like I’m slating the novel, I’m not; but Pelecanos is a writer who’s set such sky-high standards over the years that anything that doesn’t scale these heights will seem like a come-down. And, for me at least, What It Was is a real comedown from the heights of the DC Quartet or Drama City.

If you’re a new reader of Pelecanos then no doubt you’ll enjoy it, but if, like me, you’ve read some of his masterworks then you might feel, as I do, that this isn’t a great writer at the top of his form.

Special interests section…

Noir (regardless of whether it’s classic, neo or psycho) is a niche market, I think we all know that (readers and writers alike). If you are tuned into its wavelength then it’s the wildest ride you can go on. But the fact is that most readers aren’t tuned in, or if they are they’re only tuned in halfway, so that the interference mixes it up with a load of other stuff. It only takes a bit of extra tuning to turn the wavelength all the way.

Harlen Coben, for instance, takes the ordinary man in waaaay over his noggin (a noir staple) and puts a different slant on it; more positive in outlook, more likeable characters, more emphasis on milking all possible suspense and action from the scenario. In the wrong hands this might turn into total crap, but Coben’s got a master’s hand, so he makes it work beautifully, and the audience loves him for it, in droves.

Lee Child takes the hardboiled, laconic, tough as nails hero and sends him into action. Jack Reacher really is just Kells in A Fast One, or Mike Hammer, or any number of hardboiled and western heroes, but put inside a modern-day shell. Readers love him for it, and again in droves.

Elmore Leonard is a great example of a writer who has taken elements of noir and hardboiled fiction and made a tidy audience from it and his publishers have packaged his work superbly, especially in the wake of Jackie Brown (Tarantino’s adaptation of Rum Punch).

George Pelecanos effortlessly straddles noir and hardboiled styles and sells rather well too.

All the elements are there in noir to connect with a modern audience, but somehow the use of the term almost certainly dooms most of its practitioners to the section marked ‘special interests’ or, more bluntly, ‘weird stuff’. You know, that special place that guarantees very few sales.

Then I had a thought, why the hell can’t noir sell in the modern market? Part of the problem is perception: the notion that noir is niche being the main problem; the way it’s sold to the audience is another; and the fact that the Big Six publishers really don’t give a damn about anything other than giving the audience what it thinks it wants is also an issue.

Hard Case Crime seemed like a good start, and I was really excited about a comeback for noir, until I saw those covers. Frankly, they’re not the answer. Don’t get me wrong, they’re nicely designed and illustrated but the whole enterprise screams NICHE! That style of illustration was of its time and it helped sell copies way back when, when you needed to make an instant impression on a concessions stand in a bus or train station, but what is it honestly likely to achieve in this day and age? It’ll sell to people like us, the folks who buy Cornell Woolrich, Jason Starr and Ken Bruen anyway, but what about Mr and Mrs Random Browser? Will they be compelled to buy based on these covers? Somehow I’m not so sure. I hope they succeed, I really do, because I love noir; I love reading it, writing it, watching it; and if they can make it work then maybe they can bring some of those long forgotten masters into the modern age. But I’m still not convinced by their approach.

Personally, I think the right covers and the right kind of marketing can make bestsellers out of anything. The levelling of the playing field by ebooks and the fact that, at the moment at least, Big Publishing can’t compete in price terms means the opportunity to revitalise noir is probably the best it’s ever been.  Sell the readers a wild ride (even if it is a down slide) and there’s no reason why noir can’t make a comeback. Sell readers the kind of crazy shit that only noir can deliver, in spades, and on this new level playing field there’s no reason why we noir practitioners can’t have bestseller after bestseller.

There’s a new age upon us…

My Favourite Crime Novels – part 2

Here’s a continuation of the list of my favourite crime novels. Here’s part one if you haven’t read that

6) The Daughter of Time – Josephine Tey’s novel is a superb example of the art of storytelling. It’s a murder mystery without a physical corpse (the murder concerned is historical). It pretty much takes place in one room, a hospital room, where a bedridden detective attempts to prove that Richard III didn’t murder the princes, with the aid of a few friends. It shouldn’t work at all. In fact, the difficult premise alone would be enough to finish off all but the best writers – I can think of but a handful of writers who could pull off the trick that Tey works so brilliantly here. If you haven’t read it before do so immediately. It is so persuasive a piece of fiction that it will make you rethink Richard III’s legacy, or at least look into the history further via Google!

7) The Talented Mr Ripley – Apparently Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul has such deductive powers that he can immediately tell the difference between male and female prose. If Mr Ripley wasn’t such a well known work, and Patricia Highsmith wasn’t such a well known novelist, I wonder if he could really divine gender from Highsmith’s ice-cold, spare prose and its brilliant exploration of the mind of the sociopathic Tom Ripley. Somehow I doubt it. Highsmith shares Jim Thompson’s ability to make you empathise and root for somebody who you would cross the street to avoid if you met them in real life. Brilliant stuff.

8 The Big Blowdown – George Pelecanos’ melodrama (the first of the Washington DC quartet) is slam-bang, warp-speed noir. But it’s done with such lightness of touch that you don’t even realise that it’s a noir until the very end. It takes the old film-noir staple of the cowardly friend on the rise through the criminal ranks and the courageous friend on the fall and spins it on its head. It is effortlessly brilliant and the pace never flags. If you want to learn how to write modern, pared-to-the-bone crime fiction, and you’re not sure how to do it, then start reading Pelecanos as soon as possible.

9) Point Blank (or The Hunter) – Last year, whilst having a day off work through illness, I stayed in bed and tried to read John Hawkes’ The Beetle Leg. I realised that this ‘Existential/Surrealist Western’ was in fact simply a dull, lifeless, but beautifully written load of nothing. I put it down, unfinished, and picked up Richard Stark’s Point Blank. I finished Stark’s novel in one very long sitting (despite having previously read it, years ago). The reason for this is that Stark (aka Donald Westlake) can tell a story and Hawkes can’t (though, to be fair to Hawkes, he isn’t much interested in storytelling). The pace is jet-fuelled, the prose is spare and the dialogue cracking. The protagonist, Parker, is a murderous scumbag and yet we find ourselves rooting for him. The set-up is simple and yet beautifully done.

10) The Getaway – I’ve written about it before, so I won’t go into that much detail, but Jim Thompson’s The Getaway is both a fast moving action thriller and a haunting noir. It carries off both tasks with aplomb and gives the reader a thrilling ride that also stays with them long after they’ve finished the final page. If you haven’t read it by now then it’s the perfect way to get into Thompson’s work.

I think I’ll continue this list into a top thirty 🙂 as I’m rather enjoying it, but I’ll do it on a book-by-book basis, rather than as lists of five.