Taking On Crime In A Racially Divided D.C.

Aug 2, 2011
Originally published on August 10, 2011 12:17 pm

All 17 of George Pelecanos' crime novels have been set in his hometown of Washington, D.C. — but he isn't writing about politicians, lawyers or lobbyists. Instead, Pelecanos' stories look at the city's greasers and drug dealers, its working black families, and its ethnic neighborhoods.

Esquire has called Pelecanos "the poet laureate of the D.C. crime world," and it's a fitting description; when Pelecanos writes about crime in the district, he's also writing about race and class in the city. In a place like D.C., he'd be hard-pressed not to.

'Where It All Comes From': The Summer Of 1968

Ask Pelecanos, and he says it all started when he was 11 years old and working at his dad's coffee shop. It was the summer of 1968, after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, and riots had broken out on the streets of D.C. The writer says he would take the bus from his home in a Maryland suburb to get to his dad's downtown shop.

"I was on the bus going down 7th Street, which had just burned down two months earlier," he says. "The people on the bus, they were acting differently than they had before; they were dressing much more boldly, and I remember the women wearing these big earrings [that] said 'Black is Beautiful' on them, and they had silhouettes of women with afros."

At the coffee shop, Pelecanos and his dad — two Greek Americans — and all the shop's black employees would work on one side of the counter, while the other side would be full of white professionals.

"It was 1968, and the counter was a dividing line," Pelecanos says. "I knew it, and I've been writing about race and class my whole career. That's where it all comes from — it comes from that summer."

D.C.'s 'Powder Keg' Of Tension

Pelecanos describes the D.C. of his youth as a "powder keg" of tension between white police and the city's black residents. He says that's partly why he made one of his most important characters, Derek Strange, one of D.C.'s first black cops.

A black crowd gathers in front of a drugstore in a blighted part of the district. They're throwing rocks and bottles. Derek Strange and his white partner are called in.

Pelecanos sets the scene in 2004's Hard Revolution:

From what Strange could see, he was the sole black officer on the scene. He heard screams of "Tom" and "house nigger," and felt the 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.

But there were also white cops who didn't like black officers getting hired. Pelecanos says that in his research, he talked to one former D.C. police officer who said some white cops quit their jobs over the new hires.

"They weren't going to work with black officers," Pelecanos says. "When it started happening, they said, 'I'm done. This isn't going to work for me.' "

Art Imitates Life In The Neighborhoods

The street crimes of a Pelecanos novel can be brutal with more than one crime often unfolding in the same book. There are neighborhood murders, drug lords, prostitutes, hate crimes — and even the good guys aren't all good. ("I'm not interested in writing about racists," Pelecanos says. "I'm much more interested in people who don't think they have any of those bad feelings.")

Pelecanos makes them all vivid. He tells you everything from what car they drive to what music they listen to — Springsteen or a rocker named Link Wray for the greasers; the soundtracks to Westerns and classic soul for Detective Derek Strange.

He's made Strange into a leader of his community. He was a star athlete in high school, and as an adult he coaches peewee football. When he becomes a private investigator, he opens his office in the Petworth neighborhood near where he grew up so that local kids can see a strong black man going to work every day. The fictional Strange grew up in Park View, in a neighborhood that is both full of families and crawling with crime.

"When I first started writing about this neighborhood," Pelecanos says of Park View, "they would find dead bodies here in the morning. Kids would be walking to school and there'd be a dead body stashed here."

According to D.C. homicide Detective Mitch Credle, there are some strong parallels between the neighborhoods' realities and Pelecanos' fiction. Credle, a 25-year D.C. police veteran, says that when Pelecanos puts the good guys and the bad guys in the same community, it's the real deal.

"All of the murders that we deal with are normally in the neighborhoods," Credle says. "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 because everyone knows who's committed them, as 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."

It's true that when he's working on a new novel, Pelecanos does the kind of shoe-leather work of detectives like Credle. He walks the streets, talks to people and studies the history of a neighborhood. Driving through D.C., Pelecanos points out landmarks from his books, like the house he picked out for the protagonist of his new novel, The Cut, to rob.

"I cased it," he says of the house. "I went back in the alley, and I looked to see if you could break into a place in the middle of the day."

How far did he go in his robbery research?

"The tools are in the trunk," he says.

No Place Like Home

When George Pelecanos talks about what it was like growing up in D.C., he describes himself as a bit of a greaser. He used to drive a jacked-up Camaro, go to bars and drink whiskey; but he also worked as a dishwasher and sold women's shoes. So it's no wonder Pelecanos can move so easily through the different worlds that make up the district.

He says he's liked getting to know two other cities — Baltimore when he wrote for HBO's The Wire and New Orleans now that he's writing for HBO's Treme — but his novels will always take place in D.C. His life's work is right here.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.