What It Was

By George Pelecanos

Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books. 246 pp. $9.99 paperback; $35 deluxe slipcase edition

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Reviewed by Deen Kogan


If you've never read a George Pelecanos novel, anytime is a good time to start. But be warned! Don't start at 10 p.m. if you want to get any sleep.

What It Was, Pelecanos' 18th entry in an acclaimed canon of hard-boiled fiction, provides an excellent introduction to his work, even if it is his latest.

The writing is noir: spare, dark, and evocative of time and place. The time is 1972; the place, Washington, D.C.

All the Pelecanos novels, starting with his first, A Firing Offense (1972), are set in and around Washington, or "The District," as it's called. Pelecanos doesn't write about "tourist Washington," but takes readers into a world he knows very well. After all, he grew up there and still lives there. He knows the "red-brick apartment house in the Northwest at 13th and R" and he knows the societal changes that have taken place in the last 40 years.

Pelecanos' first four books examined the '70s culture, and in his 2005 novel, Drama City, he began reflecting The District as it was changing, gentrifying but still showing vestiges of the old Washington attitude: You go along to get along. His last novel, The Cut (2011), is contemporary in setting and introduces a new hero, fresh from the fighting in Iraq.

What It Was brings back Derek Strange - antihero, ex-cop turned private investigator - in conversation with Nick Stefanos at Leo's, a Georgia Avenue bar. Both were introduced in the Pelecanos debut novel, but we're in the present and they're now in their 60s.

Over Johnnie Walker Black and Knob Creek - their drinking choices have "moved up the shelf" from Johnnie Walker Red and Old Grand-Dad - Strange tells Stefanos a story from 1972. While '72 meant Watergate to some, for Strange it was the summer he left the police force and Red Fury self-destructed.

Red Fury's given name was Robert Lee Jones. He was called Red because of the shade of his skin and the tint in his hair and Fury because that was the car his girlfriend, Coco Watkins, née Shirley, drove: " . . . a Plymouth Fury, the GT Sport, a two-door 440 V-8 with hidden headlights and a four-barrel carb. The color scheme was red over white . . . . White interior made it a woman's car."

Red Fury revels in attention and violence, and as Strange's ex-partner, Frank "Hound Dog" Nolan says, the man doesn't have a retirement plan. A minor drug dealer is shot to death in the redbrick apartment house on the Northeast corner of R and 13th. A cheap piece of costume jewelry goes missing, and a simple coincidence brings Strange and Nolan together, and a coda is put on the Red Fury saga.

What It Was completely portrays the time with the help and reinforcement of musical allusions - Al Green, the Stylistics, Betty Wright, Kool and the Gang, Bettye LaVette, James Brown; a catalog of cars - '72 Dodge Monaco, '67 Polara, '68 Electra, Ford Mustang, '70 Monte Carlo, '69 Continental, Eldorado - and its impeccably drawn character details. Here's how Strange describes himself at the age of 26 to a prospective client:

"I'm D.C. born and bred. Grew up in Park View, on Princeton. Went to high school at Roosevelt, right across the street from where we sit. I was Four-F 'cause of a knee injury I got while playing football for the Rough Riders. My knee is good now, and as you can see I'm perfectly fit. I was an officer with the MPD until the riots, at which time I left the force. Kicked around some, doing a little bit of this and that, until I figured out that I dug detective work and not a uniform. So I copped a license and opened up my own place. I like soul and funk, the Redskins, good-looking women, Western movies, half-smokes, nice cars, puppy dogs, and long walks on the beach."

A literary groupie might say: "Pelecanos tells a marvelous story." His tales are more than marvelous. They teach and entertain, mixing a bit of optimism with melancholy and sadness. Elegant is not a word to use when describing Pelecanos, but morality is. The same can be said for his other work in film and television, including the HBO series The Wire and Treme.

For the record, Red Fury Jones first made a cameo appearance in The Night Gardener (2006) and was very loosely based on a notorious D.C. criminal, Raymond "Cadillac" Smith. What It Was is Red Fury's completed story, the book that Pelecanos always knew he'd write someday.

Deen Kogan is the director of the Society Hill Playhouse and a longtime producer of literary conferences.