I’m skeptical whenever a critic claims a genre writer “gets better with every book.” Most writers I’ve followed (including, perhaps especially, the high-falutin’ types) work steadily until they find their groove. Once established, they return to the groove and work it until it becomes a rut. George Pelecanos came on the crime fiction scene just over 15 years ago, and immediately proved himself as someone worth reading. And, dammit, he gets better with every book. He definitely has his groove, but it is gaining depth and breadth.
Some of the pleasures I take from Pelecanos’ books:
1) It’s A Working Man’s World. Pelecanos’ perspective isn’t just resolutely masculine, it’s resolutely blue-collar — involving guys who have learned how to do a job they can take pride in, whether it’s run a diner, work a chop-shop or install flooring. Even when he introduces a minor character, he takes pains to accurately portray the work they do. This approach is something of a revelation, and certainly a welcome change from the artists, free-spirits and flakes who populate other books.
2) Attribution. GP has cited movies as his chief source of narrative inspiration, but his books are filled with other tip-offs. The early books were often written with an accompanying soundtrack (one novel even came with a CD). Characters carry paperback copies of books with them, standing in as the author’s list of recommended reading, which is worth following up. Pelecanos hopes to join a particular company of authors who, in turn, have provided company and encouragement for a very particular audience (see above).
3) Literary Self-Improvement. GP’s template gets wider with every book. In The Way Home (A) Pelecanos spends the first 100 pages getting into the head of a self-destructive, self-centered late-adolescent punk who, through circumstance, very slowly begins to get a clue — tiresome reading in the hands of a lesser, more self-infatuated novelist, but I couldn’t put it down. Mortal peril is eventually thrown into the mix (something else I always appreciate about GP’s books) but the larger question is will this kid make it to the end of the book and become a man?
This is one of those books I immediately donate to the public library, so that readers in my town get the chance to discover it for themselves.