GEORGE P. PELEGANOS
American crime novels have lurked in Los Angeles' dark corners and
- pounded the hot pavements of New York. But in the work of Book Festival visitor GEORGE P. PELECANOS, they turn up in the seedier side of the country’s capital. Words: Alan Morrison
Geo e’s Washcing
WHILE THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES IS GETTING blown in the White House, other Americans in Washington DC. are getting blown away. The country’s crime-ridden capital, with its working class families who have lived for generations in the shadow of world-famous monuments, is the hunting ground of George P. Pelecanos. It’s where he set A Firing Offence, the first of three novels featuring hi-ﬁ salesman turned investigator Nick Stefanos. It’s also the location for what has come to be known as the “DC Quartet’, the first volume of which, King Suckerman, gives a blaxploitation spin to the 70s, set to a rock and P-Funk ‘soundtrack’. The story of record store owner Marcus Clay and his friends continues in The Sweet Forever; the year is now I986, the drugs and racial tensions in the city much more dangerous.
“This was the summer that crack cocaine came to town and changed the rather benign drug trade to a gang-based trade of murderous violence,’ Pelecanos explains. ‘It was the summer that the public first became aware of the
~ - 9 corruption rampant A in Mayor Barry’s administration, and 0 S it was the summer that University of i ‘ Maryland basketball star Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose, hours after signing with the Boston 1' Celtics. Plenty of J ' white yuppies l i “woke up” when Bias died, and stopped using coke. But crack didn’t leave the inner city. And neither did the after-effects of Mr Barry’s betrayal of his own people.’
Add to this corrupt cops and kids killing each other for vague notions of ‘territory’ and ‘respect’. and you’d expect a bleak novel indeed. However, Pelecanos’s touch is lighter than that of James Ellroy and the equivalent ‘LA Quartet’. Characters who are essentially ‘good’, but perhaps confused over what it really takes ‘to be a man’, are
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offered a hint of redemption. And there’s a sense that it’s notjust drugs that give the plot its energy; it’s propelled by the sheer enthusiasm the characters have for the music they listen to and the gigs they go to — from Cameo to Echo and the Bunnymen.
‘l was actually at many of the concerts — Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, Scream — described in the book,’ admits Pelecanos. ‘And most of the “soundtrack” of the book is in my record collection. When I went back and started listening to 80s music again, especially the electro- pop with its synth-wash production. I found that it doesn’t hold up particularly well today. Not like the music of the 70s, which I still believe is the golden age of popular music. But, hey, the 70s was my time as a teenager here in DC. And everyone tends to think of their time as the best.’
Nevertheless, Pelecanos can also recognise that those good days contained the origins of the violence that is wrecking American society today. 'The nation was shocked when the dozen, mostly white students were killed in Littleton. Colorado last spring,’ he says. “But there has been no great outrage at the hundreds of young black men and women killed by handguns each year, for the last P. thirteen years. in I)::| 1"[il\\'‘u Washington» DC ‘ ’ Littleton did create a really, really important discussion about violence in movies, though, leading one to believe that movies, video games and rock ’n’ roll — not guns — kill people. Meanwhile, the death toll mounts here every day. . .’
George P. Pelecanos (Book Festival) Spiegeltent, 624 5050, 25 Aug, 1pm, £6 (£4); Imprisoned Writers, Napiers Herbalists Lifestyle Tent, 25 Aug, 5.30pm, free.