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.