What It Was
By George Pelecanos
It’s the summer of 1972 and the place isWashington,D.C.It’s the time of 8-tracks, big afro hair, high heels on men’s shoes, incense, soul and funk, bell bottom pants and rayon shirts. It’s the era of muscle cars and drugs and money and prostitutes. Four years after the D.C. riots and shortly before Watergate. It’s what it was and the story of a man starting out in the private investigator business, and a bad man wanting make a named for himself.
Derek Strange, ex police officer and now private eye, is hired by a woman wanting to retrieve a lost ring. Robert Lee Jones, aka ‘Red Fury’ has killed a local drug dealer and about to go on a murder spree to become a man with an infamous legacy. Strange’s former partner, veteran Frank Vaughn has caught the case and is soon on the trail of Red. Enter hit men from the mob also looking for the killer of the dealer. As Red and his associates plan to make their getaway forces from all sides are closing in.
A typical Pelecanos plot. It’s all about the time period and the culture, the racial tension, the racial attitude from all sides. I also enjoy the very slightly humorous journey the ring takes throughout the book.
Derek Strange: Black, former cop, 26 (at the time the main story is set), was 4F out of the military due a football knee injury, born and raised in D.C. Drives a Monte Carlo. Father died of cancer and brother murdered in ’68. The best description of Strange comes from his own lips to his client. “I like soul and funk, the Redskins, good-looking women, Western movies, half-smokes, nice cars, puppy dogs and long walks on the beach. Hot oils, too, if the situation calls for it.”
Robert ‘Red Fury’ Lee Jones: Light black skin, nicknamed after his girlfriend’s car. Grew up inWest Viginia, ex con, unset broken nose, rust colored hair, father never around.
Frank Vaughn: White, 52, ex Marine in WWII, Strange’s former partner on the force. Hound dog look. One son. Married but has a part-time sex partner. Drives aMonaco. Strange’s mother used to be a domestic at Vaughn’s house.
It’s all about characters. The similarities and the differences. Everyone (save for Vaughn) has similar tastes in music, food and alcohol. The good guys aren’t one hundred percent good (Vaughn cheats on his wife; Strange cheats on his girlfriend; Strange smokes marijuana at times.) The bad guys are shown to be a product of their time. Jones grew up poor and fell into the criminal life as if it were the natural thing to do.
Straightforward. A little street lingo with the slang and verbiage of the time period. Conversations are to the point with no more or less than what needs to be said.
A lot of period details in setting, food, neighborhoods, music, cars, women, drugs, and a way of life. It is what it is with no frills, no nonsense, no sugarcoating. The action is quick and decisive without any overt gore. Profanity is kept to a minimum, but timely. The book, similar to many of Pelecanos’, is a basic, factual, no sensationalism look at the black culture of the time, good, bad, and indifferent. Solid writing. It doesn’t seek to exploit but just shows the time period for what it was.