There are hard-hitting writers, like Dennis Lehane and Richard Price, and there are ambitious, prolific and timeless writers like Robert B. Parker and Lawrence Block. The best of those two worlds merge in American classic George Pelecanos, who has cauterized the wounds of this country in 16 books about cops, crime, race and home-grown wars. He’s equally well known for his intensive work-for-hire on the HBO series The Wire, The Pacific and most recently Treme. Readers will be overjoyed to delve into his new series, starting with The Cut, about a mercenary P.I. in Pelecanos’ home turf of Washington, D.C.
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What do we find in The Cut?
Spero Lucas, a Marine veteran of the Iraq war, returns to D.C. and falls into investigative work and a side business in which he retrieves lost property for a retrieval fee of 40 percent [his cut]. He’s hired by a major marijuana dealer to get back some lost packages, setting off a chain of violent events.
Tell us about Spero. In some ways he seems like something of a deviation for you—a younger guy, an Iraq vet—and in some ways he’s a throwback to the protagonists of your earlier books.
I like the energy of those early books. I partly attribute that to the youth of the Nick Stefanos character. Spero, too, is a young man of action and appetites. He’s a little reckless, and he can back up his attitude. Women want to get next to him and he’s eager to comply. It was a kick to write about someone who is a good person but not too domesticated or evolved.
I had a bunch of material going back to The Turnaround, when I visited with veterans at the Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital, which is a mile from where I live. Also, I met many veterans who do investigative work here because they don’t want to sit behind a desk. Meaning, they like the action. I’m still interested in what these men and women face when they come home, and I’m interested in their psyches. I am the son of a Marine who fought in the Pacific in WWII. My father, Pete Pelecanos, was quiet, confident and tough. In a way, I am still telling my dad’s story.
Spero is an interesting guy in that he doesn’t come down hard on either side of the law. What interests you in writing about cops and criminals?
Simply put: conflict. It is the stuff of all drama. Police and criminals give you that highest form of conflict, which is life and death. That’s live ammunition for a writer.
Your writing carries great strengths—great dialogue, propulsive plots. How tough was it for you to develop those strengths in your writing?
I’ve always listened for the poetry in spoken language. Though the dialogue aspect of fiction writing can be developed, I do believe that certain writers “have it,” in the same way that a born musician, at a very young age, can pick up an instrument and play. Plotting has always been more difficult for me. But I get there.
You also share something with other strong literary writers in using crime to say things about society. When you start something like The Cut, is there a conscious effort to paint a bigger picture there?
I’m not making any specific social statement with The Cut. However, by drawing a complete contemporary world with my setting, I’m hoping to convey a mood that’s reflective of what we’ve gone through as a country this past decade.
You’ve spent the last several outings on stand-alone novels with some pretty ambitious changes in style. What made you want to come back to a straight-up serial crime novel?
Those stand-alone novels were books I was compelled to write. The same impetus was behind The Cut. I had a story to tell and the vehicle for this one was the crime novel. Also, I’m competitive. I heard rumblings that I was out of the crime-fiction game or that I had put it behind me. Some of the younger crime writers are excited about what they’re doing, as they should be. Well, I’m jacked up, too. The Cut says that I can still walk it.
There can’t be a shortage of material in your hometown of D.C. Besides your intimate knowledge of the place, what are its attractions for you as a novelist?
The city as a microcosm for the country, the social and economic injustices that exist in the shadows of the monuments…these things, but mainly the soul of the people here. The popular culture continues to portray Washington as the buttoned-down home of patricians, lobbyists and politicians, when that could not be further from the reality of what is going on in D.C. This is a culture-rich environment.
Music seems important to your creative process, and you’ve promised a playlist of tour music for The Cut. What does this book sound like to you?
It sounds like you’ve pulled up to stoplight and there’s a young guy playing music from his open car windows on a summer day. I’m talking about energy and propulsion. Spero listens to reggae, dub and guitar-based rock.
What about Spero will appeal to your readers?
He served his country without complaint. He’s back and he wants to make up for lost time and have a little fun. Spero’s confident, but he’s not a guy who boasts. He’s part of a brood of adopted kids, and family has real meaning to him. If he walked into a bar you’d buy him a beer. You might even let him date your sister.