Author George P. Pelecanos has created his own niche as the "best kept secret in crime fiction." The critics love him, but after eight gritty urban novels, the Washington, D.C.-based writer has yet to crack the U.S. bestseller lists or achieve instant name recognition. And that's just fine with him.
"I don't think my books are for everybody," the soft-spoken author said when BookPage caught up with him at a recent ClubMed mystery writers conference. "I totally cooperate with everything [my publisher] asks me to do, and I want the book to succeed, but I've stopped having unreal expectations for any of my books. All I want to be able to do is write another book."
Just the kind of answer you might expect from the easygoing author. But with his growing cult following in the U.S., a thriving fan base overseas and plenty of cheerleaders inside the industry, his name might not stay a mystery for long. "He's the best," raves former touring partner Dennis Lehane. Along with Lehane, authors like Elmore Leonard and Michael Connelly are heaping praise on Pelecanos' latest book, Right as Rain.
Like all of his previous novels, Rain is set in the working class suburbs of Washington, D.C., a side of the federal city that has nothing to do with politics. The story involves former cop Derek Strange, a Samuel L. Jackson-like character with cool confidence, who now heads his own P.I. firm, Strange Investigations. He's hired to investigate the death of an off-duty black D.C. cop who was gunned down by Terry Quinn, a white cop with the unpleasant combination of a quick temper and a chip on his shoulder. Although Quinn was cleared of any wrongdoing, he's tormented by the thought that race made him pull the trigger. He volunteers to help with Strange's case and the unlikely duo of killer and investigator create a unique partnership.
Pelecanos, a Greek-American, has created plenty of multi-ethnic characters in the past, but here he tackles the race issue head on. The racial tension is always just below the surface in his honest look at prejudice on both sides.
Describing his novel as an "urban western," Pelecanos says the story is based on actual events that were happening in Washington during the time he wrote the book. Several black officers had been shot by other policemen and the majority of those shootings were by white cops. Pelecanos researched the book by riding along on several midnight to dawn shifts to get a sense of their job.
"It's a real interesting shift," he says. "You really see what's going on. All the straights are in bed, and the people who shouldn't be are [the only ones] out there."
He also did what he has always loved — just "get out there and listen to people talk." Which might explain why dialogue comes so easy to him.
"I've been listening all my life," he says. Every summer as a kid in Washington, D.C., he would travel across town on the bus to work for his dad's lunch counter downtown. The various conversations he overheard on the bus fascinated him. "I was always interested in not just what they were saying, but the rhythms of their speech, the slang. Just a love of the language."
There are a few other things that Pelecanos is obsessed with, like basketball, cars, music, movies and ladies shoes. Each obsession has a history, and each of those elements finds its way into Pelecanos' books. He put himself through college selling shoes on straight commission ("the best job I ever had"), describes himself as a movie freak who, as a boy, dreamed of becoming a movie director, and admits he used to own a jacked-up Camaro. To him, the kind of car you drive and the music you listen to say a lot about your character. So can he explain the guy/car phenomenon?
"It's something about having a beer between your legs, the music up loud, a girl beside you," he struggles to explain. "Yeah, my books are for guys, I would say. It's another thing keeping me down," he laughs.
Even if you don't get the car thing, maybe you'll understand the vast and varied music references that punctuate his descriptions. It's been suggested that his books should come with a soundtrack, and it's not a bad idea.
"I do understand that I'm alienating a certain part of the audience that doesn't listen to that music. I don't expect people over the age of 60 — just to pick a random age — to know what I'm talking about," he says. "It's sort of like I can't help myself or something. The things that I write about, the settings I write about, people are listening to music. If you've got a book set in the kitchen of a restaurant, the radio is the most fought over appliance in the restaurant all day long. I know because I worked in plenty of kitchens. When people start talking about what they're listening to or why the other guy's music sucks, you start finding out about their characters."
Pelecanos knows all about blue collar jobs because he has amassed quite a resume over the past 30 years: bartender, truck driver, line cook, valet and don't forget shoe salesman. He was general manager of a $30 million company when he had what he calls an "early mid-life crisis."
"That's when it all fell apart for me," he says. "Because what I thought was going to happen was that I'd buy a company or own my own business, and I didn't want to do that. I just didn't want to get in my car every day and be like everyone else. In a way, you can say it's a personality flaw of a lot of writers — they can't really conform. They question everything, from authority to driving the same route everyday."
Despite the fact that he'd never tried to write anything before, he quit his job and started his first book. He finished the largely autobiographical A Firing Offense a year later.
"You've got to remember, I was just a guy saying, 'I want to write a book.' I didn't have any formal training. I never took a writing class, so I'm sure the people around me that loved me were thinking, 'He's gonna fail.' And how would they know, and how would I know, that I could write a book? I just thought that I could. I just had the idea that I could," he says.
And whether or not Right as Rain is a huge hit, Pelecanos will be content as long as he can keep writing seven days a week and churning out one book a year.
"I'm always one book ahead," he explains. "I can write another book before the next one comes out, and I don't have to worry about what people said about that one. I just put something else in the hopper and keep the cycle going."