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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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

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: 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.

M: 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 was - 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.

M: (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."

M: (Reading) From what Strange could see, he was the sole black officer on the scene. He heard screams of Tom and house 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.

M: 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 oftentimes, there's more than one unfolding in the same book. Neighborhood murders, drug lords, prostitutes, hate crimes - even the good guys get ugly.

M: I'm not really interested in writing books about racists. I think much more interesting is people that don't think that 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 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")

M: (Singing) Oh, I look like I'm down in 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 every day.

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

BLAIR: OK. These row houses look they've been around for a while.

M: Yeah, this is 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.

M: 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.

M: 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.

M: 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: 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.

M: 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)

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

BLAIR: Did you bring your tools, too?

M: Tools are in the trunk.

BLAIR: Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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