Novelist George Pelecanos: Taking On Crime In A Racially Divided D.C. At 11 years old, novelist George Pelecanos witnessed the aftermath of Washington, D.C.'s 1968 race riots, and he's never forgotten it. Now he uses fictional Detective Derek Strange, one of D.C.'s first black cops, to explore the intersection of crime, race and class in the nation's capital.
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Taking On Crime In A Racially Divided D.C.

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Taking On Crime In A Racially Divided D.C.

Taking On Crime In A Racially Divided D.C.

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Esquire magazine once called George Pelecanos the poet laureate of the D.C. crime world, that's Washington, D.C., Of course. Pelecanos has written 17 novels, all of them set that the nation's capital. He also wrote for the TV series "The Wire," set in Baltimore, now writes for the New Orleans show "Treme." But the District of Columbia is home for him.

And for our series Crime in the City about crime novelists and their haunts, NPR's Elizabeth Blair cruised the streets of D.C. with the author.

A note here to listeners: This story is going to contain some offensive language.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: When George Pelecanos writes about crime in D.C., he's also writing about race and class. He says that all started when he was 11 years old. He was working at his dad's coffee shop downtown. To get there he'd take the bus from his home in a Maryland suburb. It was the summer of 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. had recently been assassinated and there'd been rioting in the streets.

Mr. GEORGE PELECANOS (Crime Novelist): I was on the bus going down 7th Street, which had just burned down two months earlier. And then, you know, seeing the people on the bus, they were acting differently than they had before. They were dressing in much more boldly. And I remember the women wearing these big earrings, said Black is Beautiful on them, and they had silhouettes of women with afros. And then I'd get to work.

And the counter was there. And my dad and I - Greek-Americans and an all black crew on one side of the counter. And on the other side were white professionals cause it was 1968. And, you know, the counter was a dividing line. I knew it and I've been writing about race and class my whole career. I mean that's where it all comes from. It comes from that summer pretty much.

BLAIR: D.C. was a powder keg back then, says Pelecanos, with the tension between the white police and the black residents. That's partly why he made one of his most important characters, Derek Strange, one of D.C.'s first black cops. In one scene, a black crowd gathers in front of a drugstore in a blighted part of the city. They're throwing rocks and bottles. Derek Strange and his white partner were called to the scene.

Mr. DION GRAHAM (Narrator): (Reading) Strange and Troy joined the police line in front of the store and spread out several arm lengths, but remained side-by-side.

BLAIR: This is from the audio book of the novel "Hard Revolution."

Mr. GRAHAM: (Reading) From what Strange could see, he was the sole black officer on the scene. He heard screams of Tom and how nigger, and felt a pounding in his head. He brandished his stick and slapped it rhythmically into his palm. He did not look the crowd members in their eyes. Serve and protect. Do your job.

BLAIR: There were also white cops who didn't like blacks being hired. For his research, Pelecanos interviewed former D.C. police officers. One told him some white officers out-and-out quit.

Mr. PELECANOS: They weren't going to work with black officers. These are guys that he said were - he didn't even know they were like that. But they just -when it started happening - they said, I'm done. You know, this isn't going to work for me.

BLAIR: The street crimes of a George Pelecanos novel can be brutal. And often times, there's more than one unfolding in the same book. Neighborhood murders, drug lords, prostitutes, hate crimes - even the good guys get ugly.

Mr. PELECANOS: I'm not really interested in writing about racists. I'm much more interested in people who don't think they have any kind of those bad feelings inside of them and they deny it.

BLAIR: Pelecanos makes all of them vivid. He tells you what the car they drive and what music they listen to. With the greasers, it might be Springsteen or a rocker named Link Wray.

(Soundbite of rock and roll music)

BLAIR: With detective Derek Strange it's the soundtracks to Westerns, and classic soul.

(Soundbite of song, "Ole Man Trouble")

Mr. OTIS REDDING (Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) Oh, I look like I'm down on my luck, deep in pain

BLAIR: Derek Strange was a star athlete in high school. He's a leader in his community. Later, he coaches Pee Wee football. When he becomes a private investigator, he opens his office in the neighborhood where he grew up so that kids can see a strong black man going to work everyday.

Mr. PELECANOS: Yeah, I'm going to take you by his house.

BLAIR: Okay. These row houses look theyve been around for a while.

Mr. PELECANOS: Yeah, this real old Washington here.

BLAIR: Fictional Strange would've lived here when he was a boy with his mom and dad and brother. Families live here but crime is high

Mr. PELECANOS: When I first started writing about this neighborhood, it was, you know, they would find dead bodies here in the morning. Kids would be walking to school and there'd be a dead body stashed here.

BLAIR: There are some strong parallels between real life and Pelecanos' fiction, says D.C. Homicide Detective Mitch Credle.

Mr. MITCH CREDLE (Homicide Detective, D.C. Police Department): All of our murders that we deal with are normally in the neighborhoods.

BLAIR: Detective Credle has worked for D.C. police for 25 years. He says when Pelecanos writes the good guys and the bad guys in the same community, that's the real thing.

Mr. CREDLE: A lot of the criminal element is not necessarily from outside of those communities. For us, as detectives, it's not hard for us to gather information in those communities 'cause everyone knows who's committing them, opposed to being strangers. So I can see where George can really get a feel for what he's writing about, because any and everything he needs is right there

BLAIR: George Pelecanos does the kind of shoe-leather work of a detective when he's working on a novel; walking the streets, talking to people, studying the history of a neighborhood.

As we drive through D.C. together, he points out landmarks that he includes in his books. For his new novel, "The Cut," he picked out exactly which house his protagonist Spero Lucas would rob.

Mr. PELECANOS: Because I cased it. I went back in the alley and I looked to see if you could break into a place in the middle of the day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PELECANOS: And I mean I can even show you the house. And so, all these things

BLAIR: Did you bring your tools, too?

Mr. PELECANOS: Tools are in the trunk.

BLAIR: When George Pelecanos talks about what it was like growing up in D.C., he describes himself as a bit of a greaser. He once drove a jacked-up Camaro and liked to go to bars and drink whiskey. But he also worked as a dishwasher and sold women's shoes. It's no wonder Pelecanos can move so easily through the different worlds that make up D.C. He says he's liked getting to know two other cities: Baltimore, when he wrote for "The Wire," and now New Orleans writing for "Treme." But he says his novels will always take place in D.C. His life's work is right here.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can delve into the D.C. that George Pelecanos writes about with photographs and readings at Our series Crime in the City resumes on Thursday with a cop's eye-view of hardboiled Seattle.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.


And Im Renee Montagne.

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