Crime writer George Pelecanos on 'Owning Up' in his new story collection Crime fiction author and screenwriter George Pelecanos is known for his gritty realism. His latest short story collection takes that same unsparing look at his own past.

Police raided George Pelecanos' home. 15 years later, he's ready to write about it

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

George Pelecanos is known for his gritty true-to-life stories, often about crime. He co-created the HBO shows "We Own This City" and "The Deuce," and his long fiction career is filled with stories about the streets of Washington, D.C. He has a new short story collection coming out this week. "Owning Up" is about people understanding their own history, including his own. NPR's Andrew Limbong has more.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: George Pelecanos' living room looks like a living room. There's books on the shelf, family pictures up, a comfy-looking red chair.

GEORGE PELECANOS: Every morning, I sit here, and I read The Washington Post and drink my coffee and stuff like that. So I was reading The Post. I heard cars or vehicles entering my driveway.

LIMBONG: This was back in 2009.

G PELECANOS: And then I saw these guys wearing black and holding automatic rifles and battering rams start running towards my house.

LIMBONG: They were cops executing a no-knock warrant, looking for Pelecanos' 18-year-old son, Nick.

G PELECANOS: My wife and my daughter - my daughter was 12 at the time - were sitting back on that couch there with the dogs around them, and I turned my head, and I said to my wife - I screamed back there, get the dogs out of the house now.

LIMBONG: The cops bust down the door. They put George on the floor, zip-tie his hands. Nick isn't there, and the cops searched the house. Nick was involved in robbing a weed dealer. He wasn't armed, but his accomplices were, and so the cops were in the house looking for evidence of guns or drugs.

I reached out to the Montgomery County Police Department, and they confirmed they executed a warrant looking for Nick but denied a request for any more details. But Pelecanos did show me the warrant, and it says, you may serve this warrant as an exception to the knock and announce requirement. The police don't find anything. They untie Pelecanos and needle him a bit.

G PELECANOS: One of the guys right out - I came out here. One of the SWAT guys was looking at my books, and he goes, maybe you'll write about this someday, and he laughed. And right then, I knew that I would write about it. He challenged me, you know?

LIMBONG: The story he wrote is titled "The No-Knock," and it's in Pelecanos' new collection, "Owning Up." It's about a guy named Joe Caruso, a journalist, who is reading the paper, drinking his coffee when the cops bust in. The same beats follow - the guns, the zip ties, the pinning down on the floor. Here's Pelecanos reading.

G PELECANOS: (Reading) And then his heart dropped as he saw something he would never forget - two men standing over his wife and their 13-year-old daughter, pointing the rifles at them, their fingers inside the trigger guards, his daughter visibly shaking, her mouth open, not able to speak, paralyzed. A police officer held his biceps as he lay on the floor. Please don't shoot my dogs, Caruso said. We're not going to, was the bored reply. Caruso heard one of the men laugh.

LIMBONG: In the story, Caruso wants to write about that night, but he can't. He's too close to it, so he starts drinking instead. In real life, Pelecanos was ready to write about it - eager, really. He knew once he started, it'd all just come out. But he waited 15 years on purpose.

What was stopping you from writing it sooner and just, like, getting it all out there?

G PELECANOS: Well, that was because I wanted my son to grow up, and so that I could say to you today, he's fine.

NICK PELECANOS: He allowed time for me to grow as a man...

LIMBONG: Nick Pelecanos works in film now as a director and assistant director.

N PELECANOS: ...And develop myself as a responsible person.

LIMBONG: No-knock raids have been under increased scrutiny, especially after the police killings of Breonna Taylor in Louisville in 2020 and Amir Locke in Minneapolis, 2022. They're actually banned in Oregon, Virginia, Florida and Tennessee.

In Pelecanos' story, he writes about the devastating long-term effects of these raids that take their time to fester and grow. And that's a major theme of all the stories in "Owning Up" - how time shapes events into something else. There's a story about two guys who knew each other in jail crossing paths years later, another story about a woman digging into her own family history and the 1919 Washington, D.C., race riots. But Pelecanos' style isn't sepia-toned nostalgia. Instead, it's something as close to the truth as you can get - something Nick knows firsthand from working with his dad on set.

N PELECANOS: When he writes something, you know that it's technically correct. You know that he's done his research. He's gone through the process. He's explored various perspectives on the same thing and has come to his objective, you know, as non-biased as possible opinion.

LIMBONG: Pelecanos calls the title story in the collection his most autobiographical. It's about a kid in the '70s named Nikos, who works a job where he gets in with a bad crowd and gets talked into breaking into some guy's house.

G PELECANOS: It was just the way my life was, you know, in that era. And on this side of Montgomery County, it was about, you know, muscle cars, playing pickup basketball, drinking beer, getting high. And I worked in a place like that.

LIMBONG: Listening to Pelecanos talk about this story, it sounds familiar. You know, you get the sense that history does repeat itself, that the same lessons get taught again and again.

G PELECANOS: And I hero worshipped guys who I shouldn't have hero worshipped, and I got in trouble occasionally. But I always came home to the warmth of my family, you know? That's all you need.

LIMBONG: But it's OK because some lessons bear repeating.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

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