Sunday, 16 November 2014

What It Was - George Pelecanos


In the present day, two middleaged men chew the fat in a Washington bar.  Both are PIs from Pelecanos's earlier fiction - his original character, Nick Stefanos, and the post-Millennium character Derek Strange, this time without his partner Terry Quinn.

They reminisce about their youth, back in the Seventies, and Strange tells the tale of the notorious Red Fury who made a brief, spectacular name for himself in 1972.  The book is really about Red, as Pelecanos makes clear in the Intro - and Red is based on the real-life Cadillac Smith.  Strange is the right character to oversee Red's story because he, like Red, is black.  Red gets his handle from the reddish tinge of his distinctive Afro.

The 1972 Strange, four years out of the MPD and newly set-up as a PI, is drawn into Red's story by virtue of ring he is hired to find.  Pelecanos is really shrewd here, because commonsense tells us PIs are rarely hired to investigate killings.  The Homicide detective is Frank 'Hound Dog' Vaughan, a middleaged cop on the verge of retirement, thus making the circle with 2012 Strange and Stefanos.  Vaughn was Strange's partner back in '68, which again makes their cooperation in '72 sensible.

Vaughn is not the only one on the tail of Red Fury.  Red has caused a New York mobster to lose money and face, which is clearly not acceptable.  Red himself knows his days are limited.  The question is, who is going to get to him first?

Nobody writes dialogue as naturally and convincingly as Pelecanos.  Writing The Wire clearly honed his technique into a minor art form.  The characters, as ever, are compelling and multi-layered.  There is a slight problem structurally - he sets up Strange as the storyteller but immediately switches to third person for the story itself, allowing him to fully develop all his main characters.  He tries to resolve the problem with a jokey and unnecessary Outro, but for me that makes it worse.  What makes the novel sing, though, is the wonderful, encyclopedic period detail.  The beers, the cars, the fashions, the hairdo's and, above all, the music.

I have admitted in other reviews that I am not a big fan of the Derek Strange series.  But What It Was is nevertheless a reading treat.

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