Friday, March 09, 2012

Pelecanos at the top of his game in What It Was

Book 35: What It Was by George Pelecanos


George Pelecanos' new novel, What It Was, is just so smooth.

The DC-based writer has always been good. But it's apparent that his work as writer for The Wire, and now Treme, has taught him a great deal about pacing, mood and dialogue.

 Pelecanos seemed to struggle in recent years with books such as The Night Gardener and The Turnaround. They weren't bad books, but they lacked the attitude, the brashness, of his previous works. In striving to produce works of greater social and cultural awareness and sensitivity, books that could be approached as literature, Pelecanos lost his mojo. 

It's working now.  First in The Cut and now in What It Was, Pelecanos establishes himself as a legitimate successor to the king of cool, Elmore Leonard.

It isn't just due to Pelecanos' mastery of dialogue, although that's there.  He captures the rhythms of how men on the street speak; he captures not only how they talk, but what they say.  

Pelecanos also excels at evoking a time and place through music and movies, cars and clothes.  In What It Was he brings the Washington D.C. of the early 70s to life.  Reading his novel is as close to a time machine as anyone is going to come.

His characters are vivid. The good guys aren't too good; they have their weaknesses. But his bad guys are oh so bad.   

Finally, Pelecanos controls the pace of What It Was with the skill of an accomplished conductor. The novel begins and ends in a D.C. bar.  It could be today or tomorrow. Two men, Derek Strange and Nick Stefanos, recurring characters in Pelecanos' early novels, are having a drink. 

A song, In the Rain by the Dramatics, takes Strange back to the summer of '72 when he was trying to launch his career as a private investigator. A summer that a bad guy known as Red Fury "went off."  

And just that quickly we're off in a stirring, thoroughly entertaining thriller that demonstrates Pelecanos at the top of his game.

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