(a shorter version of this review has been published at the Crime Fiction Lover website)
On a rainy afternoon, Nick Stefanos and Derek Strange are having drinks at Leo’s, content enough to just be sitting down with each other. When The Dramatics’s In The Rain, plays on the bar’s jukebox, it ignites in them reminiscences about 1972, the year of that song’s release. For Stefanos, it was “The summer that Watergate broke.” But for Strange, it was an entirely different time. It was “…the summer that Red went off. (…) Some called him Red Fury. (…) on account of his light skin and the tint of his hair. Fury was the car his woman drove.”
“We got all afternoon,” said Stefanos.
“Then let me tell it,” replied Strange. And so he does.
Strange’s narration starts with the murder of Bobby Odum and with a stolen ring, “probably a fake piece”. Funkadelic’s I Wanna Know If It’s Good To You (Eddie Hazel on guitar) played on the victim’s turntable, and parked outside was “a Plymouth Fury, the GT Sport, a two-door 440 V-8 with hidden headlamps and a four-barrel carb.” Vanity plates: “Coco” –as in brothel-owner Coco Watkins, Robert Lee Jones’s woman. More blood will soon flow as scores are settled.
Strange, who at the time was a private detective –four years after the events from “Hard Revolution” when he was a rookie cop— is hired by Maybelline Walker, Odum’s friend, to recover her stolen ring. Meanwhile, detective Frank Vaughn, Strange’s former partner in the DC police, tries to catch ‘Red Fury’ and put an end to his murderous rampage. Vaughn and Strange will team up together once again, although unofficially this time.
One of Pelecanos’s brilliant ideas is to use the seemingly unimportant ring throughout the story, as it will change hands a few more times before it ends up in its rightful owner’s possession, all the while connecting different plot lines together and serving as a thread between some characters, and helping others who follow its trail.
What It Was is carried by Pelecanos’s usual themes of poverty, greed, drugs, crime, love, friendship, honour, etc. but as he’s so often proven, he finds new ways of showing us the real world and he vividly captures it on the page. Here, for example, is the sad and violent story of “Red Fury” Jones, a man who got up on the wrong foot of life, who grew up with no hope for his own future, a disinterest brought on by his difficult childhood in poverty and without a father. His philosophy became “Take what you want, take no man’s shit. No police can intimidate you, no sentence will enslave you, no cell can contain your mind.” Thus Jones lives his life like a fired bullet, well aware that the trajectory is his freedom but that the final impact is inevitable. A man who has no hope has nothing to lose and becomes dangerous. Pelecanos renders Jones so well that we understand the character’s motivation and attitude, making us wish that someone –or something— could save him and those in his deadly path.
What It Was takes you for a ride and the choice of cars is endless for this, as is the music selection all through the book. This is a multi-senses experience that works on many levels: the writing is as laid back as any good storytelling should be, the characters are so real that I feel I’ve seen them on a movie screen instead of on a page. I heard the clicks and bangs of the guns, the rumbling engines and the screeches of tires; I was wrapped in the atmosphere brought on by the soundtrack of the book, the songs still planted in my head as I write this review, especially the soulful, slightly raspy Just a Little Overcome playing over the echo of Red Jones’s shotgun blast, while the victim’s blood reddens the floor.
It’s not a secret that the best advice for would-be writers is to read a lot of books. My advice to them is to read a lot of books by George Pelecanos: for the characters, for their motivations as well as for the specific traits that define and differentiate them, but also for their dialogues that don’t feel forced–the natural speech patterns of each individual too—for the moments of humour at the right time, and for the escalating sense of urgency in the drama. When you read a Pelecanos book, you learn about history, politics, music, clothes, food, etc; in short, you are being entertained while you learn about life.
You can read my interview with George Pelecanos here.