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As the American distributor for John Woo's The Killer in 1990, George Pelecanos wrote the immortal movie poster tagline "One Vicious Hitman. One Fierce Cop. Ten Thousand Bullets." Since then, he has built a somewhat more complex body of crime fiction as a novelist and writer-producer for HBO's The Wire.
Every one of his 14 fiction books is about the Washington, D.C., that thriller-scribblers such as John Grisham and Lee Child render as blurry background. Pelecanos characters make their home in the D.C. neighborhoods where people actually live, at a remove from the shiny bubble of federal power and the wealthy white minority on higher ground. Describing characters in words they might use themselves, Pelecanos has a relaxed way with dialogue, as when two D.C. animal control officers in 2005's Drama City, one black and one white, banter about an angry dog:
"Lucky was really feelin' your love vibe back there," said Lorenzo.
"You lived like that, you'd be angry too."
"I bet no one steals none of those hoopties out of that lot, though."
"Why would they?" said Mark. "I wouldn't take one of those cars if Martinez was gonna give it to me for free."
"Lucky's just lonely."
"Maybe you ought to come down one night, crawl into that cage, and lie down beside him. Sing him a lullaby, somethin' like that."
Along with Richard Price of New Jersey, and Dennis Lehane of Boston, Pelecanos was recruited for HBO's highly novelistic Baltimore cops-and-dealers series The Wire, with a fourth season airing this fall. The son of a Marine who fought in WWII, Pelecanos has also scripted two hours of a forthcoming Pacific version of Band of Brothers, The Pacific War. He has a historian's appetite for period pieces, having set novels in the '40s, the '70s, and the '80s. The 1968 portion of Hard Revolution (2004) could almost pass for a definitive narrative history of the April riots.
Pelecanos is also the rare American writer of man's-man fiction who is fascinated not just by the mechanics of violence but by its blowback. Shame the Devil (his last book to feature recurring characters from his first eight novels) has the structure of a revenge story, but hinges on a court-funded grief-support group. Drama City's gangster-turned-animal-control cop believes that some men, like some dogs, can't be saved—and hopes he's not one of them. Reviewing that book, a writer for the Washington Post noted a scene in which a black killer is aroused by the sight of a dogfight gone bloody—"Pelecanos gives the reader no explanation for this response"—all but accusing the author of racism. Yet the critic should have noted the end of the book, where a wrenching description of the character's abuse as a child closes the penultimate chapter.
When Pelecanos published his first novel, A Firing Offense, in 1992, he had never taken a writing class. He has since put out roughly a book a year. Four of them star Derek Strange, his black-private-dick-as-mentor-figure, who Samuel L. Jackson is slated to play in a film adaptation of 2001's Right as Rain. Pelecanos has also edited a recent collection of Washington short stories, D.C. Noir (Akashic Books). And his newest book, The Night Gardener (a return to the mid-'80s) will be issued on August 8 by Little, Brown, the same day as the release of the third season of The Wire on DVD.
Speaking in a meaty D.C. twang on Martin Luther King Day this year, Pelecanos talked about his writing over red peppers and anchovies at his favorite restaurant in Silver Spring, Maryland, Vicino Ristorante Italiano.
City Pages: You once said that your original ambition was to write one novel. It reminds me of Ian MacKaye [of D.C. bands Minor Threat and Fugazi] saying his only ambition was to play one show. Did you ever meet him?
George Pelecanos: Oh, yeah. I think I was at Republic Gardens on U Street and there was a young punk band playing upstairs, and I was sitting at the bar drinking whiskey. Ian sat down next to me. We just started talking, you know, the straightedge guy next to the Greek guy drinking bourbon neat. But he was a good guy. And the whole D.C. punk thing was very inspirational to me in the beginning. Because anybody could see that these weren't trained musicians. I took from that that maybe I don't have to be a guy who went to writing school. Let me just see if I can write a book.
CP: Did punk and go-go [funk] make you care more about local culture in your work?
Pelecanos: I wanted to get the word out on all this stuff. There's a marriage here that a lot of outsiders don't realize, with punk and go-go. I'd go see Minor Threat play with Troublefunk in clubs and also outdoor events. Go-go is another form of punk in that these kids don't really expect to go national. The music doesn't really translate outside of the live performances. It's so immediate that in six months, it's old anyway. That's why it's being sold on the street on PA tapes.
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