Pelecanos, George P. 1957-

views updated

Pelecanos, George P. 1957-


Born February 18, 1957, in Washington, DC; son of Peter G. (a restaurateur) and Ruby K. (an administrator) Pelecanos; married Emily Hawk (a magazine producer), October 26, 1985; children: Nick, Peter, Rosa. Ethnicity: "Greek American." Education: University of Maryland—College Park, B.A., 1980.


Home—Silver Spring, MD. Agent—Sloan Harris, ICM 40 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019.


Worked as a waiter, bartender, salesman, and in management until 1990; Circle Films (producers and distributors of theatrical films), Washington, DC, manager and developer, 1990—; story editor, writer and producer for Home Box Office (HBO) series The Wire.


Mystery Writers of America.


Notable Books of 1998 citation, Publishers Weekly, for The Sweet Forever; International Crime Novel of the Year, in France, Germany, and Japan, for Big Blowdown; Los Angeles Times Book Award, and Anthony Award nomination for Best Novel, both 2003, both for Hell to Pay; Los Angeles Times Book Award, 2003, for Soul Circus. Edgar Award, Mystery Writers of America, 2004, for The Wire.


A Firing Offense, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1992.

Nick's Trip, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1993.

Shoedog, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1994.

Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1995.

The Big Blowdown, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1996.

King Suckerman, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1997.

The Sweet Forever, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1998.

Shame the Devil, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2000.

Right as Rain, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2001.

(Author of introduction) Cutter and Bone, Serpent's Tail (London, England), reprinted, 2001.

Hell to Pay, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2002.

(Contributor) Measure of Poison, edited by Dennis McMillan, Dennis McMillan Publications (Tucson, AZ), 2002.

Soul Circus, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2003.

Hard Revolution: A Novel, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2004.

Drama City: A Novel, Little, Brown (New York, NY), 2005.

The Night Gardener (mystery novel), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2006.

(Editor) DC Noir, Akashic Books (New York, NY), 2006.

Contributor to anthologies, including Usual Suspects and Best American Mystery Stories of 1997. Contributor to magazines and newspapers, including Cineaste, Esquire, Armchair Detective, and Washington Post Book World.


Several of Pelecanos's books have been optioned for film.


The son of Greek immigrants, George P. Pelecanos grew up in the Washington, DC, Mount Pleasant area, where he worked as a teenager at his father's lunch counter. He only began writing at the age of thirty-one after working at various jobs. He wrote his first book, A Firing Offense, at night in his spare time. Since the book's 1992 publication, he has written a series of gritty detective "noir" novels set in Washington, DC, all of which have received glowing critical praise as groundbreaking crime fiction.

In an Entertainment Weekly article by Daniel Fierman, writer Dennis Lehane commented of Pelecanos: "The thing I like about his writing is that it's true noir. It's concerned with people who live outside the margins." Commenting on Pelecanos's The Sweet Forever, Lehane noted: "That book was a more precise evocation of what was going on in cities in the 1980s than The Bonfire of the Vanities could ever hope to be."

Building on the success of A Firing Offense, Pelecanos stayed with the novel's main character Nick Stefanos for his next book, Nick's Trip. A Publishers Weekly contributor called the Stefanos character "offbeat … with his gruff sensibilities and fine taste in women and music."

In Shoedog, Pelecanos tells the tale of Constantine, a former marine who ends up taking part in an armed robbery that goes bad and results in his seeking revenge. "All sinners, none saints, the small-time hoods in this authentic world are crisply limned here in their fallible humanity," wrote a contributor to Publishers Weekly. Pelecanos returned to Nick Stefanos for his next effort, Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go, in which a drunken Nick overhears a murder being committed and seeks to find the killer or killers. Emily Melton, writing in Booklist, said: "This is a powerful, shocking foray into an uncompromising, bleak world of depravity and decadence, a book that will stick with the reader long after the awful conclusion."

Although praised by critics and fellow writers, Pelecanos only gained a wide readership with The Big Blowdown. "The release of The Big Blowdown in 1996 was the turning point," according to Fierman in Entertainment Weekly, pointing out that this book and the three that followed resulted in a steadily growing audience. "It was a very conscious effort to swing for the bleachers," Pelecanos told Fierman of his writing in The Big Blowdown, another Stefanos novel, which also chronicles twenty-five years of immigrant life in the nation's capital following World War II. "With stylistic panache and forceful conviction, Pelecanos delivers a darkly powerful story of the American city," wrote a contributor to Publishers Weekly.

Bill Ott noted in Booklist that Pelecanos's next novel, King Suckerman, is "much more" than just a "fictional homage to the blaxploitation films of the 1970s." Here Pelecanos recreates the seventies through drug deals, racial tensions, and soul music in a story of two friends, one black and one white, who together track down a merciless killer. In The Sweet Forever, Pelecanos finds a setting in the cocaine world of Washington, DC, in the 1980s. The characters of Dimitri Karras and Marcus Clay from King Suckerman return to face a local drug lord who tries to establish himself as the law in the neighborhood where Clay has just opened the newest of his chain of record stores. A reviewer writing in Publishers Weekly noted that The Sweet Forever "is a winner" due to Pelecanos's ability to fashion "the novel's sweeping neoepic scale" and provide a "multitude of nuanced character studies that populate this lavishly constructed canvas." In Shame the Devil, Pelecanos continues to delve into the gritty underbelly of Washington, DC, as the Farrow brothers arrive in town, rob a restaurant, and kill several of the workers there. Richard Farrow is killed by another cop and as his brother Frank escapes he runs over a young boy, whose father is the familiar Pelecanos character Dimitri Karras. Frank Farrow vows revenge for his brother, and Dimitri sets out to stop him.

Right as Rain revolves around family secrets and features the ex-cop Derek Strange, who now has his own detective agency. When a black policeman is ac- cidentally slain by a white officer, Strange, who is black, investigates at the request of the slain officer's mother. Joined by Terry Quinn, who shot the other policeman, Strange enters a world of drug trades, racism in the police force, and cold-blooded killers. A writer in Publishers Weekly noted that the character of Strange is "a new urban gumshoe who's just as tantalizing to watch in action" as Nick Stefanos of earlier novels. "What is perhaps most remarkable about this outstanding novel … is the way his plot-rich, extremely violent stories parallel the turbulence of his characters' inner lives," wrote Bill Ott in Booklist. In Hell to Pay, Strange and Quinn return to find a teenage girl who has disappeared and, in the process, encounter a ruthless criminal called Worldwide Wilson. As in many of his books, music plays a large part in the characters' lives; Strange, for example, drives around town listening to Teddy Pendergrass and Al Green. "In fact, the characters' musical selections function almost like personal soundtracks," noted Ben Greenman in the New Yorker, calling the book a "classic crime novel."

Soul Circus finds Derek Strange on the trail of a witness who might be able to provide sufficient information regarding the crimes of drug-dealer Granville Oliver, who is currently on death row, to commute the criminal's sentence to life in prison. Pelecanos depicts his version of Washington, DC, as gritty and violent, with drug lords and gun dealers ruling the streets. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly remarked: "This is vintage Pelecanos, with characters to remember, dialogue that rocks, an unsentimental, kinetic tableau of the DC underworld and, most of all, a conscience." Bill Ott, writing for Booklist, found the novel to be "a remarkably revealing portrait of urban life, encompassing both the broad sociopolitical questions and the most intimate matters of heart and mind."

In Hard Revolution: A Novel, Pelecanos returns once more to ex-cop Derek Strange, but in this volume travels back in time, offering readers a prequel to his existing Strange trilogy. The story begins in 1959, introducing a number of characters, including Derek, who is caught while shoplifting, an experience that most likely affects him sufficiently to point him toward his eventual career in law enforcement. The majority of the novel, however, takes place in 1968, immediately prior to and during the riots following the shooting of Martin Luther King, Jr. As with his previous works, Pelecanos gives the reader a sense of the turbulence of the times, the violence on the streets, and the communities about which he writes so convincingly. He also sets the stage with musical references to the songs popular during the era, and even went so far as to release a limited-edition CD to accompany the book. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly observed: "Written in rich, observant prose, the novel is a brilliant study of a society tearing apart as racial tensions escalate after the King killing." Janet Maslin, writing for the New York Times Book Review, praised Pelecanos's writing, calling him "one of today's most stellar writers of hard-boiled crime fiction." Of the book, she remarked: "Mr. Pelecanos writes clean, tight, cogent prose with a heartfelt urgency. However convenient the story's timing may be, it packs a serious punch."

Pelecanos's Drama City: A Novel eschews his standard hero-types for protagonist Lorenzo Brown, an ex-con who has recently served eight years on drug charges and is now determined to walk the straight and narrow. He works as a street investigator for the Humane Society and dutifully reports to his parole officer, Rachel Lopez, who deals with hardened criminals during the day and spends her nights in seedy bars and with strange men. "It's the stark world of violence and despair that this author really owns," remarked one contributor for Publishers Weekly. Joe Hartlaub, reviewing for Book Reporter, called the novel "a stark, dark read that eschews simplistic characterizations. The story, and its characters, will get under your skin and stay there." New York Times Book Review contributor Janet Maslin wrote: "The book's most frightening thought is that the story's predators are endlessly replaceable, and that pessimism in their community is justified." She concluded: "Although a downhill trajectory seems inevitable, Drama City leads up to a daring and unexpected finale…. [It] ultimately offers its characters a brutal twist of fate. But it rescues them from the plight of the caged dog on its cover."

The Night Gardener begins with the murder of a boy named Asa, whose name—the same whether spelled backwards or forwards—suggests that the Palindrome Murderer might have returned. One of the cops involved with the case, Ramone, has the added stress and pain of knowing the boy, who was a friend of his son. Detective T.C. Cooke joins the investigation from his retirement, as the previous expert on the Palindrome Murderer, and a two-sided investigation begins, both into the killer, and into the secrets in Asa's past that led him to be killed. Inspired by a series of real-life killings during the 1970s, called the Freeway Murders, Pelecanos remarked in an online chat for the Washington Post Online: "I knew … that I had the engine for the police novel I had never written but had always wanted to write. It is really all about characters for me." Bill Ott, in a review for Booklist, called Pelecanos's novel "a form of explorative surgery, in which he lays open the hearts of three cops and observes how those organs beat."

Pelecanos, who has also worked as an independent film producer, once told CA: "It was in college, during the burgeoning years of the punk and post-punk movements, that I first became interested in hard-boiled fiction. My intent is to marry the two forms and update the genre so that it has relevance and resonance to my generation. I'll stay within the circle (I respect the tradition that much), but I'm going to subvert the conventional elements as often as I can. I don't want to write books that I've already read."

As for his entrance into mainstream readership, Pelecanos told Fierman: "All I want to do is shine a light on the working-class people of this city…. The racial divide here is in your face. And that interests me, because I have three mixed-race kids. I worry about them."



Booklist, April 15, 1995, Emily Melton, review of Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go, p. 1483; April 15, 1996, Emily Melton, review of The Big Blowdown, p. 1424; August, 1997, Bill Ott, review of King Suckerman, p. 1885; June 1, 1998, Bill Ott, review of The Sweet Forever, p. 1735; December 15, 2000, Bill Ott, review of Right as Rain, p. 763; December 1, 2001, Bill Ott, review of Hell to Pay, p. 606; October 15, 2002, Bill Ott, review of Soul Circus, p. 362; May 1, 2006, Bill Ott, review of The Night Gardener, p. 37.

Entertainment Weekly, March 8, 2002, Daniel Fierman, "DC Confidential: Mystery Writer George Pelecanos Breaks Out of Washington's Mean Streets."

Library Journal, August, 1997, Susan A. Zappia, review of The Big Blowdown, p. 134; July, 1998, Rex E. Klett, review of The Sweet Forever, p. 140; May 1, 2000, Paul Kaplan, review of Shame the Devil, p. 180; November 1, 2000, Bob Lynn, review of Right as Rain, p. 136; December, 2001, Bob Lynn, review of Hell to Pay, p. 174.

New York Times Book Review, March 11, 2004, Janet Maslin, "It's Tough to be a Good Egg in a Hard-Boiled World," review of Hard Revolution: A Novel; March 10, 2005, Janet Maslin, "The Straight and Narrow (Like the Edge of a Knife)," review of Drama City: A Novel.

New Yorker, April 8, 2002, Ben Greenman, "Washington Wizard," review of Hell to Pay, p. 90.

Publishers Weekly, January 18, 1993, review of Nick's Trip, p. 452; March 14, 1994, review of Shoedog, p. 65; April 24, 1995, review of Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go, p. 63; April 8, 1996, review of The Big Blowdown, p. 59; June 1, 1998, review of The Sweet Forever, p. 48A; January 8, 2001, review of Right as Rain, p. 51; December 10, 2001, review of Hell to Pay, p. 50; February 3, 2003, review of Soul Circus, p. 54; January 5, 2004, review of Hard Revolution, p. 37; February 21, 2005, review of Drama City, p. 158.


Authors on the Web, (October 8, 2002).

Book Reporter, (October 8, 2002), review of Right as Rain; (May 14, 2007), Joe Hartlaub, review of Drama City.

George Pelecanos Home Page, (May 27, 2007).

Houston Chronicle, (October 8, 2002), John B. Clutterbuck, "George P. What's-His-Name Just Keeps Delivering," April 26, 2002.

January Magazine, (October 8, 2002), Karen G. Anderson, reviews of Soul Circus and Hell to Pay.

Washington Post Online, (August 1, 2006), "Book World Live," interview with George Pelecanos.