Cool Eye, Cool Tales

When you ask George Pelecanos what he likes about writing scripts for "The Wire," the highly praised HBO crime drama, he talks about studying film in college and how the chance to write scripts for an actual show was just too good to turn down--never mind that he has an increasingly hot career as a crime novelist. Then he mentions the word "access," and for the first time his voice takes on real excitement. But he's not talking about access to stars or producers. "You know when you're driving along the highway and you see some old chained-up building or factory or dock area, and you think, 'That looks interesting.' But it's off-limits--you couldn't get in if you wanted to. Well, working on this show, I have access." Access to the derelict Baltimore docks where the show is filming its second season. Access to laid-off longshoremen and their lore, like how they used to use wooden shovels to load grain because a metal shovel might strike a spark and burn the whole shipment. Pelecanos dotes on those telltale details. That's what he wants the access for. They glitter on every page of his 11 crime novels. Because when he gains access, so do we.

Pelecanos, 46, is one of a critically acclaimed handful of crime writers like Dennis Lehane, Walter Mosley and James Lee Burke who tackle the knotty--and interwoven--problems of race and crime, class and money that beset contemporary American life. Their novels read less like whodunits and more like reports from a war zone. But if all these writers are good reporters, they are also good storytellers. This is social realism of a very high order, and no one does it better than Pelecanos.

He grew up in working-class north-east Washington, D.C., working behind the counter at the diners of his father and grandfather. When he turned 30, he set aside a career as a film distributor in order to write novels. Last year he hit the best-seller list for the first time with his 10th book, the critically lauded "Hell to Pay." His latest, "Soul Circus," is a worthy successor, because Pelecanos has the first-rate writer's ability to entertain you and break your heart on the same page. His storytelling keeps you turning pages to determine the guilt or innocence of a drug lord on death row. But it's the little things along the way that make this fictional world come to life: why a certain Al Green album sounds better on vinyl than CD, exactly how a D.C. crook can buy a pistol in Virginia. You may think you're signing on for a mystery, but you've bought into a much more interesting trip.

Like all of Pelecanos's work, this one is set in his hometown. But Pelecanos has no interest in the precincts of the rich and powerful. If you're lucky enough to get a tour of Washington from this native, you can spend the day riding around and never see a familiar landmark, apart from the occasional distant glimpse of the Washington Monument. Many of the old buildings are beautiful, but many more are blighted. After a few blocks of this, you have to ask what it is about the city that he loves so much. "The people," he replies instantly. "There's a way we speak, a tradition. You'll hear two guys talking and one will say, 'Oh, yeah, Jimmy Johnson, he came out of Dunbar in '80.' Everybody knows that stuff--where he went to high school, why he didn't get into the NFL. People have a real pride about being a real Washingtonian, not being part of the federal city."

Pelecanos isn't bashful about his loyalties in the class war (best line in "Soul Circus": "the close-mouthed kiss of gentrification"). Nor is he afraid of climbing into the heads of black characters. When a black friend criticized him for writing about nothing but black "dishwashers and drug dealers" and asked where the black doctors and lawyers were, he replied, "There are no white doctors and lawyers in my books, either. It's a narrow world. So I'd better make the black guy redeeming? I don't buy it. Is it real or not--that's what it comes down to."

By that yardstick Pelecanos comes up a winner, because his hero, private eye Derek Strange, is one of the realest creations in contemporary fiction, whether he's solving a crime or worrying about getting a haircut. Just for the record, he's an admirable guy, too. The only unbelievable thing about this powerfully affecting character is the notion that Pelecanos made him up. "I don't want to talk about art," Pelecanos says at the end of the interview, "because I don't know what art is." The hell he doesn't.