four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
58-May-June-2012
user_rating: 
0

738909.pngGeorge Pelecanos is an award-winning novelist, filmmaker, and television writer (The Wire, Treme). The author’s 18th novel, What It Was, is a gritty, atmospheric prequel to the later Derek Strange novels (Right as Rain [2001], Hell to Pay [2002], Soul Circus [2003], Hard Revolution 4 of 5 Stars Selection May/June 2004), this time set in 1970s Washington, D.C., and featuring a fictionalized portrait of that city’s infamous criminal Raymond "Cadillac" Smith.

The Story: July 1972. Watergate is about to explode; the United States is mired in Vietnam; and African American policeman Derek Strange realizes that he’s "in the midst of something, a music, dress, and cultural revolution that was happening with his people, in his time." Still in his 20s and itching for some real action, Strange leaves the Washington, D.C., police department to become a private investigator. When the notorious Robert Lee Jones (aka "Red Fury," like the car) robs and murders a junkie, both Strange and his white ex-partner, Frank Vaughn, on whose turf the murder was committed, become involved in a case as volatile as the times.
Little, Brown. 272 pages. $35. ISBN: 9780316209540

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"What It Was is a sleek, fast-paced crime tale that doesn’t hit the usual speed bumps found in Derek Strange’s path. … Luckily for the reader Mr. Pelecanos has built this book around the exploits of a real crime kingpin, Raymond Smith, known as Cadillac, who becomes the vicious but stylish Red ‘Fury’ Jones in this novel, presumably because Mr. Pelecanos thinks the Plymouth Sport Fury is a flashier car for the guy’s girlfriend to drive." Janet Maslin

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Pelecanos is crazy for details, so all these particulars—the colorful names, the flashy clothes, the sexy cars and soulful music—add to the big picture he’s continually drawing of crucial moments in America’s changing history, as viewed from the streets." Marilyn Stasio

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"If you haven’t before, now’s the time to take a chance on George Pelecanos, the best crime writer you’ve never read. … You’ll get a rip-roaring introduction to Derek Strange, a black private investigator and the hero of a number of Pelecanos’ earlier novels." Jocelyn McClurg

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Many dramas come together in this hard-edged novel. … [The Derek Strange novels are] about crime, but, finally, they’re a profound meditation on good and evil in this city, mostly in parts of it that many of us pass through often but never really see." Patrick Anderson

Critical Summary

At this point in his career, this much is evident: George Pelecanos is a talented, versatile writer—period. He’s long been a legend with a relatively small group of devoted crime readers; every novel, each as good as the last, seems to increase his cachet. Without a doubt, his noir chops are right up there with the best work of Walter Mosley, Andrew Vachss, Sara Paretsky, and Michael Connelly, and his urban landscapes are as evocative as James Lee Burke’s Louisiana. With What It Was, Pelecanos delivers a period gem, nailing the city’s uncomfortable energy and riffing effortlessly on 1970s music, fashion, and pop culture. Full of bell bottoms, Roberta Flack tunes, and muscle cars, What It Was is a wild ride.