Monday, March 12, 2012

Book Review: What It Was by George Pelecanos

What It Was
George Pelecanos

     George Pelecanos has crafted another superb crime noir novel set in Washignton, D.C.  The main character is again Derek Strange, an African-American former metropolitan police officer who left the force after the infamous 1968 riots following the King assassination.  Strange is now a private investigator and is hired by a young woman to find a stolen ring.  The ring was stolen during the contract murder of her boyfriend, a small time drug dealer.   The murderer was Robert Lee Jones, nicknamed “Red” because of his hair color.  Jones’ street name is “Red Fury” since he is frequently driving his girlfriend’s automobile, a red-over-white Plymouth Fury GT Sport.

      Strange’s ex-partner Frank “Hound Dog” Vaughan is the investigating officer in the boyfriend’s murder.  Frank, an ex-Marine who fought at Okinawa, earned his nickname because of his facial features as well as his reputation for dogged pursuit of criminals.  Strange and Vaughan’s investigations overlap and they co-operate with each other in an attempt to capture Red Jones whose life of crime goes into hyperdrive.  Vaughan is under increasing pressure from the city government to put Jones behind bars and turns to a varied group of informants including cross-dressing prostitutes.  Complicating matters, there are two mafia connected fellows from New Jersey in town who are also looking for Red to collect on a bad debt. The story comes to a shattering conclusion as all parties converge on a house in suburban Maryland being used by Red and his partner as a hide-out. 

      Pelecanos infuses this novel with gritty realism, sometimes illuminating some unimaginable habits of the druggies and prostitutes who comprise most of the secondary characters.  All of his characters are memorable.  He also vividly brings the story to life by including many details of the automobiles of the era (1972) as well as the popular music of the time.  You can listen to all of the music he mentions in a George Pelecanos playlist on Spotify.    What It Was is a very entertaining read and anyone who enjoys police procedurals and realistic crime fiction would enjoy this book.

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