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BOOK REVIEW: ‘What it Was’

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WHAT IT WAS
By George Pelecanos
Little Brown and Company, $9.99 246 pages

Who knows what ideas lurk in the hearts of crime writers? In a conversation with Ed Burns, his writing and producing partner on HBO's "The Wire" and "Treme," thriller-master George Pelecanos was pumping Mr. Burns, a cop decades ago, about the relationship between the police and the underworld in the 1970s, one of Mr. Pelecanos' favorite eras. Then, a couple of years later, while doing what he termed "half-hearted research for a possible Watergate novel I had no real desire to write," he read two seemingly unrelated news stories.

One, on point, described the arrest of five men who had broken into the Watergate office building with plans to bug the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. The other was about the arrest of a notorious D.C. crime figure nicknamed Cadillac Smith. Bingo. Eureka. Whatever. "As a result ... I had the ammunition to ignite my imagination. 'What It Was' ... was written in a fever in the summer of 2011."

The finished product of that fever contains several transformations. In one, Mr. Burns becomes the model for two D.C. cops, a veteran who is still on the force and a rookie who left it to work as a private detective. In the other, Cadillac Smith becomes Robert Lee "Red" Jones, and the Cadillac is downgraded to a Plymouth Fury owned by Jones' girlfriend, Coco, whose selection of an eponymous vanity plate was their first mistake.

Derek Strange, whom Newsweek ungrammatically labeled "one of the realest creations in contemporary fiction," is making his fifth appearance in a Pelecanos novel. The earlier ones, which came out one per year from 2001 to 2005, were "Right as Rain," "Hell to Pay," "Soul Circus" and "Hard Revolution." In the first three, Strange was older, a seasoned PI, but in the last two, the author takes him back to his youth, and in so doing gets to cover some historical ground.

Whether he's talking '70s, '80s, '90s or today, as usual, George Pelecanos has all his D.C. facts - be they musical, automotive or sartorial - straight. And when it comes to the streets of Washington, especially the little-known ones and their back alleys, the man's a human GPS.

The plot of "What It Was" has a ring at its center, the kind you wear, not the sporting kind. It keeps getting stolen, first from its owner and then from one thief after another, a miscellany of miscreants that includes a small-time grifter, a hooker and two killers, one a Mob hit man and the other Red Jones. But Strange knows none of this when, through the window of his bare-bones storefront office, he spots a gorgeous woman across the street.

"She was stepping out of a Warwick-blue Firebird convertible, sitting on redline tires ... She was young, had prominent cheekbones and clean beige skin, wore her hair in a big natural, and was unrestrained in a print halter dress. The girl was fine. Purse in hand, her hips moving in a feline way."

The reader will note that Mr. Pelecanos can't just tell us it was a blue Firebird convertible; he has to get more specific, more exact, help us "see" it, even though he must know that only a small portion of his readership will know that Warwick blue is the lighter shade between liberty and crystal turquoise. At first, that specificity is helpful, enjoyable even, but a little of it goes a long way, and after a while, I tired of it in this book.

Derek Strange takes the case, despite some doubts about her story - and a physical attraction to her that would not please his girlfriend, Carmen. After Red Jones keeps coming up as a dangerous red flag, Strange realizes he's in over his head, so he turns to his old partner, the white veteran, Frank "Hound Dog" Vaughn. Working loosely together, they pursue different leads and discover different corpses, all victims of Red.

If Derek Strange is one of the"realest creations in contemporary fiction," then Red Jones is one of the "realest baddest." He kills on impulse, almost for pleasure, and even when he should know he's leaving a trail, as with the vanity license plate. For example, "They smoked the joint down to a roach and finished their beers. Jones got up quickly from his chair ...'Let's go, girl,' he said, standing tall. He was dressed for the night in rust-colored bells, three inch stacks, and a print rayon shirt open to show the top of his laddered stomach. Coco, similarly fly and regal, came up and stood beside him.

" 'You gonna take my short?' said Jefferson.

" 'That Buick's on fire.' said Jones. 'Well be good in Coco's ride.' "

In the end, it all comes down to a magnificent next-to-last scene, with Strange and Vaughn closing in on Red and company from the side and rear while a mobster is at the front door with two shotguns. It's vintage Pelecanos, a master at the top of his game, and, believe me, despite all the details, you won't be disappointed.

• John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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