George Pelecanos: A Critical Bibliography
George Pelecanos has written 15 crime novels set in Washington, D.C., none of which is a waste of your time. His latest, The Turnaround, comes out in paperback next month. His new book, The Way Home, appears in May. I've written about Pelecanos here and here. Below are notes for a critical bibliography complete with letter grades, which I know he loathes. They capture how strongly I feel about each book.
A Firing Offense (1992): B so far--haven't finished yet
Debut Nick Stefanos PI mystery establishes classic themes early on: family, drugs, violence, drink, and stereo equipment--with no hurry to get anywhere soon. So I set it down before I ran out of Pelecanos.
Nick's Trip (1993): A
Between-the-lines/between-beers road-trip mystery about the illusory nature of friendship. Best Nick Stefanos.
Shoedog (1994): A-
A break from Stefanos and the first-person with a formula noir to beat all formula noirs (the only one from Pelecanos). Memorable ex-sex and shoe salesmanship.
Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go (1995): A-
In which semi-autobiographical Nick Stefanos realizes he might be bad for people.
The Big Blowdown (1996): A so far--haven't finished yet
Disappointed by other retro-historical Pelecanoses, I was surprised by how completely this 1940s story envelopes you in its mundane but absorbing postwar reality, without a trace of sentimentality or the expected pop-culture overload. Parents of many recurring Pelecanos characters appear.
King Suckerman (1997): B
Gripping fan favorite set in 1976 has amazing moments, but hits the same notes too often for my taste, and with a plot that's like a racially and sexually subverted Elmore Leonard but less fun than that sounds. Vivid picture of moviegoing in the '70s. Optioned and dropped by P. Diddy.
The Sweet Forever (1998): B+
Of all the '80s years to immortalize, why crappy old 1986? D.C. basketball is why. Hence my relative lack of enthusiasm for this thriller of cocaine, parenthood, tube tops, and record stores. Scream and Chuck Brown make appearances.
Shame the Devil (2000): B+
Having written about violence for close to a decade, Pelecanos goes deeper here, using his most immediately grab-you-by-the-head action set-up to frame a drama about... a support group for survivors. Climax tries to have revenge both ways, as both necessary and no good, but villain is so queasily and memorably creepy you just want him gone.
Right as Rain (2001): A-
Introducing Derek Strange, possibly Pelecanos's greatest character, a mentor-hero with problems of his own, and Terry Quinn, his partner, together the most plausible and wonderfully specific salt-and-pepper friendship of crime fiction. Optioned as Samuel L. Jackson vehicle, which is a shame.
Hell to Pay (2002): A+
Great suspense, good dogs, and true-to-life explorations of commitment and would-be fatherhood in the smoke of desire and drugs. Resemblance to Taxi Driver only points up how much more authentic and adult this feels by comparison, and I'm a huge Taxi Driver fan. Best Derek Strange.
Soul Circus (2003): A
Big finish to Derek Strange trilogy ends on an uncharacteristically overt-political note, albeit with tough-guy fire.
Hard Revolution (2004): B+
Given the research, might have been better as a straight-up oral history of the '68 riots in D.C., or of Link Wray's '50s heyday there. But both time-machine destinations are a thrill, whether or not you remember the story of young Derek Strange.
Drama City (2005): A+
Stand-alone redemption tale about a dogcatcher where even the dogs are distinct characters. This book is moving and re-readable in every particular, even if the ending offers the hero too easy a way out. Subjectmatter recalls The Wire, but Pelecanos only repeats one beat--and this book hit it first. Best Pelecanos.
The Night Gardener (2006): B
For once, the author's dutifulness to reporting and subjects close to his heart feels like a burden rather than a spark, and the over-familiar scenario leaves those axes he grinds more obvious. But the reporting and writing are so good that fans won't mind.
The Turnaround (2008): A-
Pelecanos themes of youth, work, fatherhood, racism, violence, reconciliation, and the Iraq War come to a head in this modern-day Steinbeck fable, with an anti-climax so left-field, it circumvents the Pelecanos-esque. Is this even a thriller?
Some Pelecanos links:
My 2006 Q&A with Pelecanos in City Pages
Extended outtakes from the 2006 City Pages Q&A at Complicated Fun
2008 editorial in Time Magazine against the Drug War
2008 Washington Post profile