I live a block off 14th Street, the setting for much of George Pelecanos’s gritty crime novel, What It Was. Set in 1972, it’s a fascinating read for anyone who likes books set in the Washington “beyond the monuments.” Watergate is briefly touched on, but this book contains no Senators, no wacky Masonic conspiracy theories and hardly any politics at all.
What It Was concerns the lives of real people, mostly cops and criminals, in a city scarred by riots. The popular conception of 14th Street is that it was a wasteland, from the disturbances of 1968 to the start of gentrification in the 1980s. But life went on. Pimps, drug dealers and hustlers of all kinds moved in. And for a lot of them, and the cops that pursued them, it was a hell of a time, even a good one.
Red Fury wants to make a name for himself and is going on a crime spree across the city. He wants to remembered. Hunting him is Frank Vaughn, a dinosaur in the evolving era, someone not afraid to bend the rules to get the job done. Also mixed up in the case is his friend Derek Strange, a cop who has left the force to become a private eye.
Pelecanos has a great eye for the details of the time, from the tricked-out cars to the soul music of the 1970s. He also resurrects a lot of old DC haunts, legendary bars and restaurants that are long gone in this gentrified city. His knowledge of the city is encyclopedic. For example, Red hides out in Burrville, a neighborhood I didn’t even know existed.
I wrote my own crime novel about the city, Murder in Ocean Hall. It’s set in many of the 14th Street neighborhoods of What It Was but during a time of rapid change.
What It Was is a fast, involving read. Pelecanos’s style is muscular, alternating perspectives as it advances towards an inevitably violent conclusion.
Interestingly, the novel is available on the Kindle for only 99 cents. It’s a limited-time offer designed to generate new readers for this crime novelist. Forward-thinking publishers are experimenting with new strategies and promotions to adapt to the world of e-readers.
What It Was is also the first book I’ve read on my iPad. Using the Kindle app, set to sepia, it was a comfortable reading experience – though not as easy on the eyes as using an e-ink reader like the Kindle.
But the 99 cent strategy worked for me. After dipping into the gritty crime world of What It Was, I’m primed to read the rest of Peleconos’s work.