Books: East of 14th Street ; George Pelecanos's Novels Break the Rules of American Crime Writing with Their Treatment of Inequality, Poverty and Race. Andrew Buncombe Meets the Self-Taught Author in a Part of Washington the Tourists and Politicos Rarely Get to See
Buncombe, Andrew, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
There's no need for George Pelecanos to look at the menu and barely any need for the waiter to ask what he wants to eat for lunch. Not only is the crime writer a regular at Vicino, a restaurant in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring, but so are many of his characters. In one of his novels, Hell to Pay, a couple come here for a meal of linguine before heading home for some pasta- fuelled sex. Pelecanos cannot help including such details in his novels, in much the same way, it appears, that he cannot help but choose the red peppers and anchovies in olive oil.
Vicino is the perfect Pelecanos restaurant: simple but not shabby, with food that is pleasant rather than spectacular. It is not the sort of place that tourists to the nation's capital are ever going to find. That's Pelecanos all over. For more than a decade, he has been writing about life in the parts of the city that few visitors, and a great number of locals, know next to nothing about.
It is not the world of the White House and Capitol Hill, of K Street lobbyists and Georgetown dinner parties. Rather, it is the hard-scrabble life of drugs and crime, of gun killings and of lives cut short, of unemployment and of getting by. It is the life overwhelmingly experienced by the city's majority black population, a life located outside the white and wealthy enclaves of the city's north-west quarter. It is a life that takes place east of 14th Street.
'The soul of the city is located in the side of the city that you probably don't go to,' he says as he starts to eat. 'It's people who have lived here for generations. This whole thing about Washington being a transient city is a myth. It's only a transient city for a very small segment of the population. They come and go and the other people stay and they are the majority.'
This focus on the less glamorous side of Washington has provided a rich seam for Pelecanos. Since his first novel was published in 1992, he has completed another dozen pulp crime novels of a quality and erudition that few writing in the genre have matched or even aspired to. He has been likened to Elmore Leonard and James Elroy, been described as 'the poet laureate of the DC crime world' by Esquire and found himself a regular at the top of the bestseller lists.
Now, one of his novels, Right as Rain, is to be made into a film by producer Curtis Hanson and starring Denzil Washington, and his 13th novel has just been published. Drama City tells the story of Lorenzo Brown, a former convict trying to lead a better life and working as an animal cruelty prevention officer with the Humane Society. As with his earlier novels, Pelecanos took the time to do firsthand research and spent several weeks investigating the world of illegal dog-fights and gambling. The book suggests, ultimately, that in both human society and the animal kingdom, there are those who simply cannot be saved.
Pelecanos believes he has earned his success the hard way. When he dropped out of college with dreams of being a writer, he supported himself working a string of low-paying jobs: in coffee bars, as a waiter, selling shoes. In his spare time he worked on his writing, believing it was a trade rather than an art, something at which he would improve with effort and perseverance.
The result was A Firing Offence, a detective story about the disappearance of the stockboy from an electronics store. When he reads that novel now he does so with a shudder. 'When I look back at some of the early stuff it's quite embarrassing,' he says.
If there is a common thread running through Pelecanos's stories, it is his readiness to do more than simply tell a tale. Quite consciously, his novels are part social commentary, focusing on issues such as poverty, inequality and " very often " race. …