Much of the attention around George Pelecanos’ new book, WHAT IT WAS, has focused on the quite brilliant way that the good folks at Mulholland Books are publishing and marketing it. In case you haven’t read about it, instead of the standard e-book and hardcover release followed months later by a paperback edition, WHAT IT WAS is available now as a 99-cent e-book, a trade paperback for $9.99, or a limited-edition, signed and slip-cased hardcover for $35.
I think this is quite brilliant, but the reality is that it wouldn’t matter a whit if the story contained on the paper or e-pages wasn’t up to snuff. Luckily for us all, WHAT IS WAS is one of Pelecanos’ best, second only to RIGHT AS RAIN in my estimation.
WHAT IT WAS is set in 1972. Derek Strange has hung out his private investigator shingle. His former partner, Frank Vaughn, is still on the force. Red “Fury” Jones, a villain for the ages, is wreaking havoc in Washington DC, which Pelecanos brings to life in a manner that makes the reader quite certain she was actually there.
Many have called WHAT IT WAS noir, and I’m sure the label fits, but for me, it’s much more than noir. Derek Strange has been a favorite character for years and for him to remain surprising and engaging is testament to Pelecanos’ awesome storytelling prowess. Pelecanos obviously respects his setting, character and stories because he shortchanges none of them. Even the ancillary characters—like Red’s girlfriend and sidekick or Strange’s mistress or mom—are so vivid that I wouldn’t have been surprised to have any one of them knock on my front door (ok, a little surprised, but you know what I mean).
Pelecanos has always been unapologetic in his storytelling, both in his books and on TV shows “The Wire” and “Treme.” WHAT IT WAS continues this tradition, and I hope he never gives this up. WHAT IT WAS doesn’t flinch at violence or human frailty; on the contrary, it celebrates both.
This will sound frivolous to some, but I have to also commend Pelecanos for telling a complete and complex tale in less than 300 pages. In a world where publishers put authors under contract to deliver stories that run to 400 pages and more even when they don’t need to be, WHAT IT WAS is exactly the length it needs to be. It includes not one extraneous word, scene or plot element.
If you’ve never read Pelecanos, WHAT IT WAS is a fine place to start. While the books featuring Derek Strange are a series, they’re not bound by elements of surprise that make reading them in order necessary.
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