Friday 24 February 2012

Four George Pelecanos First Editions: Right as Rain (2001), Hell to Pay (2002), Soul Circus (2003), Shame the Devil (2000)

Let's round off this short run of George Pelecanos posts with a bunch of first editions, all of which I bought in the same London bookshop in summer of last year, and most of which feature one of the leads from Pelecanos's latest novel, What It Was. Beginning with:

A British hardback first edition of Right as Rain, published by Orion in 2001, the same year as the US Little, Brown first edition. This, like all of the books I'll be showcasing in this post, was bought in Henry Pordes on Charing Cross Road in June 2011, during my two-week tour of England's secondhand bookshops (obviously this was during the London leg of the tour). The first editions in Henry Pordes are situated on the ground floor as you enter, but on the spur of the moment I decided to have a quick look in the basement, which is usually stocked with (not especially interesting, before you ask) paperbacks. On this occasion, however, the shop had evidently had a clear-out, because there was a stack of first editions downstairs, all priced at a few quid each, and mostly of a crime fiction bent. And even better, four of 'em were by George Pelecanos.

Naturally, I snapped those four up. None of them are especially scarce or valuable, but they are all in very fine condition, about the best state a person could ever hope to acquire them in, so I was dead chuffed to nab the whole lot for under fifteen quid, especially as each one individually would normally cost about that anyway. Right as Rain is the first in Pelecanos's series starring Washington P.I.s Derek Strange and Terry Quinn – the former of whom, as I indicated in the intro to this post, also features in What It Was (in a much younger incarnation, What It Was being set in 1972). There's a synopsis and excerpt on George Pelecanos's website, and an insightful review of the novel on Rick Kleffel's Agony Column.

And from the first Strange/Quinn outing... to the second:

Hell to Pay, again published in hardback in the UK by Orion, this time in 2002. Not untypically for Orion, the design of the dustjacket is uncredited – Right as Rain's jacket design is similarly uncredited – but the front cover photo is by Ed Holub – and if you're wondering at this point why I didn't tell you who took the photo on the front of Right as Rain, that's because there's no credit for that, either. Hell to Pay is, as I say, the second of Pelecanos's three novels starring Derek Strange and Terry Quinn (Strange of course features in a further two – the aforementioned What It Was, and 2004's Hard Revolution); there's a synopsis and extract on the author's website, and an entertaining and personal review by Karen G. Anderson on the January Magazine site. And to complete the set:

The third Strange/Quinn novel, Soul Circus, published in hardback by Orion in 2003. The cover photo is again by Ed Holub – or "Edward" as he's credited here – and as with the previous two books, you can find a synopsis and excerpt on Pelecanos's site. Reviews aplenty there are of this one online, but you could do a lot worse than the reliable Mark Lawson of The Guardian.

That brings us to the end of the Strange/Quinn segment of this post... and also to the end of the British first editions. Because the final George Pelecanos first I found in Henry Pordes was an American one:

Shame the Devil, published by Little, Brown in the States in 2000. This one is the fourth entry in what's known as the D.C. Quartet – but it's also an entry in the Nick Stefanos series – see also A Firing Offense (1992), Nick's Trip (1993) and Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go (1995) (and, in briefer appearances, Soul Circus and What It Was) – as Nick features in this one, too. George Pelecanos's website has a synopsis (no extract in this instance, though), but allow me to direct you towards my esteemed friend Olman for a fuller review, including links to reviews of the three prior D.C. Quartet novels. Unlike Orion, Little, Brown are perfectly happy to credit cover designers, and the jacket on this US edition was designed by Tom Brown, utilising a photograph by Joshua Sheldon. And also unlike Orion – and most other British publishers for that matter – Little, Brown have chosen to finish the book with lovely deckled edges – on which nerdily bibliophiliac note it's probably best to draw a line under the Pelecanos posts.

Next on Existential Ennui: a bit of housekeeping, and some links.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Book Review: What It Was, by George Pelecanos; Orion Limited Edition Signed Hardback, 2012

On to the second post in this short George Pelecanos "season" on Existential Ennui. And having reviewed Pelecanos's 2011 novel The Cut, I'm turning now to the second Pelecanos book to have been published in the past six months – in a rather splendid UK-only edition....

Published by Orion on 9 February, this is the British hardback of What It Was, George Pelecanos's eighteenth novel, and the fifth to star Washington, D.C. policeman-turned-P.I. Derek Strange – or rather, co-star; Strange is teamed with fellow investigator Terry Quinn in three of those books, and shares this latest one with two other leads. Before we get into the plot, though, I just wanted to spend a moment on this particular edition of What It Was, because it's a little unusual. For one thing, the format isn't the standard hardback arlin-covered case with dustjacket; there's no jacket, and the case is finished as metallic gold, with that striking blaxploitation-style image (different to the US edition) printed directly onto it. For another, the UK hardback is limited to just a thousand, numbered copies. And finally, each of those thousand, numbered copies is signed by Mr. Pelecanos himself:

Mine's number 137, as you can see. It's an interesting strategy on Orion's part, reflecting recent news of ebook sales apparently eating into hardcover sales, as a result of which many publishers are now seeking to make their hardbacks more desirable as objects. And it certainly did the trick here: ordinarily I tend to hold off buying brand new hardbacks, waiting until I chance across cheaper copies, but in this instance I snapped one up from Amazon as soon as it became available.

I'm glad I did, too, because What It Was is at least the equal of The Cut, and in some respects even better. Set in Washington during the summer of 1972 – also, not entirely coincidentally, when the Watergate scandal broke – it's the story of Robert Lee Jones, a.k.a. Red Fury, a small-time crook who suddenly steps up a league and starts robbing and murdering his way across the city in an attempt to secure his legend. But it's also the story of Derek Strange, not long departed from the D.C. police force following his experiences during the 1968 race riots (as related in 2004's Hard Revolution), now beginning to establish himself as a private investigator and on the hunt for a missing ring; and of Frank Vaughn, alias Hound Dog, the veteran cop on the trail of Red. And over the course of the summer the fates of all three men become intertwined, leading towards a bloody showdown in a forgotten part of the capitol.

I hesitate to use the word "fun" to describe a novel in which lots of people are shot and killed, but in comparison to the gloomy likes of The Way Home (2009) and, to an extent, The Cut, What It Was is practically a knockabout farce. Pelecanos seems to be enjoying himself immensely – he wrote the book fast, in three months – detailing a period of American history when black music and cinema and fashion were all reaching a colourful, superfly crescendo (almost obsessively detailing, in fact: much in the way that The Cut seemed preoccupied with geography and street names, What It Was compulsively catalogues clobber; barely a character is introduced without reference to their "stacks" and "bells"). In a note at the start of the book Pelecanos reveals that What It Was began life as a much more weighty Watergate novel – one the author "had no great desire to write" – and elements of that intended work do make it over to What It Was, notably a fleeting appearance from a real life, key (but ultimately tragic) player in the scandal. Thankfully, however, What It Was wears its history – its own and the era it documents – lightly; it's the characters that matter here.

And those characters all feel so alive, both in the sense of being rounded and believable, and in that they're open to the possibilities and opportunities of the epoch they're living through: Strange striking out on his own as a P.I.; Vaughn revelling in the job he loves (and is damn good at, despite what the suits believe); Red violently carving out his place in history. Unlike the bad guys in other Pelecanos books, though, Jones isn't a completely monstrous creation (a visiting mobster – with imbecilic partner in tow – fills that role this time): he's merciless, sure, but also charismatic, engendering unquestioning loyalty in both his girlfriend, Coco, and his right-hand man, Alfonzo Jefferson. Certainly Vaughn, for one, understands and even respects Red's motives; as the detective tells Strange: "The clock ticks. You get toward the finish line, you realize that what's important is the name you leave behind... Red Jones gets it."

That notion of leaving a mark on history is reinforced by the novel's framing device, which features Derek Strange in a bar in the here and now telling the tale of Red Jones and Frank Vaughn (and himself) to a character from a different Pelecanos series: Nick Stefanos, star of A Firing Offense (1992), Nick's Trip (1993) and Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go (1995). Strange and Stefanos have known each other for a while – Nick made a guest appearance in the last "contemporary" Strange novel, 2003's Soul Circus – but in the closing moments of this latest drinking session, Pelecanos seems to be suggesting that not only has their legend yet to be written... but that it'll be a legend shared.

And speaking of Soul Circus, that novel and its two fellow Derek Strange/Terry Quinn outings will form the basis of my third and final Pelecanos post, in which I'll be looking at first editions of all three books...

Monday 20 February 2012

The Cut (Reagan Arthur / Orion, 2011) by George Pelecanos: Book Review

(NB: A version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.)

It's been a while since I blogged about American author George Pelecanos; the last time I did so at any length was back in November 2010, although I did mention him in passing in this review of Richard Price's The Wanderers last year. But it just so happens that I've recently read two of Pelecanos's novels in quick succession – and since I also have a bunch of others of his books still waiting to be blogged about, I thought I'd gather all of that together for a short run of Pelecanos posts, beginning with a review of a novel which made it to the number 9 spot in my 10 Best Books I Read in 2011 chart:

The Cut, first published in 2011 by Reagan Arthur in the US and Orion in the UK (which is the edition you can see above). Now, I've a particular reason for cross-posting this review on The Violent World of Parker, as well as on Existential Ennui. I mean, George Pelecanos being ostensibly a crime novelist, and Donald E. Westlake/Richard Stark being an acknowledged influence on Pelecanos, obviously there's a certain amount of crossover anyway. But on top of that there's an explicit nod to Westlake's work in The Cut, one which will bring a smile to every Parker appreciator's face.

I'll return to that shortly, but first, the novel itself. The initial offering in a projected new series from Pelecanos, The Cut stars Spero Lucas, a young private investigator based in Washington, D.C. Except Spero isn't, in the strictest sense, an investigator; he's actually more of a finder. For a percentage of whatever it is he's recovering, Spero will track down lost or stolen property, whether that property be legit or otherwise. Spero's latest case sees him tasked with retrieving a package of marijuana, which was delivered via FedEx to a suburban address (a popular way of importing drugs, apparently) and then promptly stolen before the lieutenants working for the owner of the weed, Anwan Hawkins (who is currently languishing in jail), could get to it. In the course of the ensuing investigation, Spero finds himself tangling with a gang of ruthless killers and a corrupt cop, in the process unwittingly causing the kidnapping of a schoolboy...

I mentioned above that George Pelecanos is (ostensibly) a crime writer, but in truth his books are really only crime fiction in the way that, say, The Wire is crime fiction. Like that groundbreaking TV show – for which Pelecanos wrote, of course (and continues to do so for Treme, The Wire creator David Simon's follow-up) – while there is lawlessness in Pelecanos's books, that's only one strand of their genetic make-up. At root, Pelecanos is a chronicler of contemporary urban America – especially Washington, his home town – with all that that entails: criminal activity, obviously, but also the city's bars, restaurants, parks, police, neighbourhoods and people – working class, middle class, underclass, and all points in-between.

I've never been to Washington, but so effectively does Pelecanos convey the sights and sounds, smells and tastes of the place that, should I ever find myself there, I'll probably experience an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. (I'll certainly be seeking out one of the delicious-sounding breakfasts Spero indulges in.) Indeed, so detailed are Pelecanos's descriptions of Washington's streets, blocks and corners in the novel that occasionally the experience is akin to reading an A-Z. Curiously, though, despite this seemingly slavish attention to detail, the geography isn't always accurate: my good and learned friend Book Glutton – a resident of D.C. – reports that some of the boundaries, bars and street numbers in The Cut are a little off – and also that some aspects of the police work depicted are inaccurate.

These are minor quibbles, however, to be chalked up to either artistic license or possibly deliberate obfuscation in order to protect real people and places: more importantly, Book Glutton reckons that The Cut brilliantly captures what it's like to live in Washington, and to me it felt utterly convincing: a vivid picture of a city largely recovered from the years of gang violence which blighted it, but still with its problems. It's also, I'd venture, a better book than Pelecanos's previous novel, The Way Home, which, though good, featured a pair of villains who'd apparently wandered in from a completely different story. By contrast, the bad guys in The Cut are integrated in a much more organic fashion, and in Spero Lucas, Pelecanos has the kind of intriguing protagonist that The Way Home lacked. Adopted and raised by a Greek family, an Iraq War veteran who's pretty handy in a fight (look out for a brutal, desperate hand-to-hand struggle in a vacant lot), Spero isn't without his flaws – he has a tendency to follow his dick around, for one thing – but he's an engaging lead, and having learned some hard lessons by the close of the novel he emerges as a character who should easily sustain a series.

As for that Westlake/Stark connection, that comes three-quarters of the way into the novel, in scene in which Spero's adoptive brother, Leo, is teaching a public high school English lesson. The book Leo has chosen for his class is the debut Parker outing, The Hunter (in an '80s Avon edition, no less), and the discussion around the novel is lively and entertaining, the unruly kids finding Parker a compelling creation. But there's one kid in class, Ernest, who's a real movie buff, and in Ernest's thoughts on which is the best Parker movie, the guiding hand of Pelecanos the Westlake fan can be clearly seen.

Pelecanos seems to be on something of a roll at the moment: The Cut only arrived in August of last year, and yet the author has already had another novel published in the interim. And in the next Pelecanos post, I'll be reviewing that novel, in a highly collectible British edition...