Friday, 17 February 2012


I suggested in my review a few months ago of George Pelecanos' last novel, The Cut (you can link to it here), that it marked a departure of sorts—it appeared to be both the last in a quartet I called 'Fathers & Sons' but also perhaps the first of a new series, and also a book written in a more straight-forward style that perhaps reflects his television writing but also recalls some of his earlier books with echoes of hard-boiled pulp and westerns.

What It Was is, on the surface, another remarkably straight-forward crime story, and not the first book featuring Derek Strange to follow a western motif: a driving narrative that ends in a shootout. But What It Was is also a meditation, one made all the more effective for the seemingly simple action that drives it.

The story is set in 1972, around the time of the Watergate breakins (and yes, the security guard named Frank who's pointed out in one of the bar scenes is indeed Frank Willis—there is an element of recognition in this novel I found very satisfying, but that many younger –or British--readers will miss) and Derek Strange has left the police and set-up as a private eye. He's hired by Maybelline Walker to retrieve a piece of costume jewellrey with sentimental value, that she'd given to a friend to appraise; said friend has been murdered and the ring has disappeared.

As it happens, the murder is being investigated by Strange's old police partner, Frank 'Hound Dog' Vaughn, and the killer is Robert Lee Jones, known as 'Red Fury', who has embarked on a spree of killing for hire and robbery. But he's ripped off some of the wrong people; mafia killers from up north descend on DC to track down and deal with Fury, even as Strange finds himself caught up in Vaughn's investigation. It's a great story, told with tremendous drive. Red and his girlfriend Coco, driving his muscle-bound Plymouth Fury (part of the derivation of his street name) are outlaws, characters born half from westerns and half from the love of the images of the new black heroes on the screen: this is Shaft chasing Superfly in an urban spaghetti western. The supporting cast is well drawn: the numbers kingpin who gets ripped off, the young hookers the mafia killers party with, the transvestite Martina who is Vaughn's best informant, the Vietnam vet witness Strange tracks down, dismissed by the police as a wino, who maintains a precious sort of dignity; it makes for a rich setting. And, as I said, there are references: to the massive Afros of basketball stars Darnell Hillman and Artis 'Rigor Artis' Gilmore, to Stymie of the Little Rascals, even to a young Nick Stefanos, whom readers of Pelecanos' earlier novels will recognise.

And that all fits perfectly, because this is a meditation—on what it was. The story is being told by Strange to Stefanos, because they are now detective partners, in an afternoon session in a bar, doing what men used to do. What you do, and more importantly, how you do it, defines what you are, and influences everything else. Vaughn, whose views on race are shall we say old-fashioned, still takes people as they come to him, particularly Strange. But as attitudes in society change, that approach becomes more difficult, because the assumptions that lie beneath it are being turned over.

It is a meditation on a different time, with different values, and on change. We all looked different in 1972, not least Pelecanos (see right) and the world seemed more chaotic, and positive, than it did, or does now. Take a look at the cover of the UK edition, which is perfect: hidden inside the natural Afro are all the things which used to define us in the world of adults. Maybe the difference is that now we've managed to transform the world so most people live as if it were a children's world. But of course it isn't.

We see the increase of violence, for its own sake, outside the tight confines even of the business of crime. We see one of the key moments that drove such change – to me the scene with the young hookers using cocaine, the new drug which soon will take over, is indicative of a complete transformation of the value systems of a generation—even one that's already become accustomed to drugs.

This may seem a lot with which to lumber a small taut novel like this, but that's the beauty of Pelecanos' writing; he makes the attitudes shine through. He also returns to his old technique of using music to set scenes and define characters: it's not a coincidence that Strange begins telling his story in reverie inspired by The Dramatics singing 'In The Rain'.

'He's living for this summer,' is one description of Red Fury's disregard for consequences.This is a summer of change—Watergate reminds us of that, perhaps that was the moment when faith in institutional change finally went down the drain. Or up the straw. As the story ends, with reference to 'print the legend' from John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence', Strange and Stefanos leave a big tip and go back to work. That's what men do. 'I'll see you when I do,' says Red Fury. Tru dat. What it was indeed.

What It Was by George Pelecanos Orion Books, £9.99 ISBN 9781409143675 NOTE: Orion are offering this book as a 99p ebook and also in a £25 signed & numbered hardback

This review will also appear at Crime Time (

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