Correction to This Article
This article gave the incorrect date for a photo of the Pelecanos family. The photo was taken on Thanksgiving Day 1962.
Crime Story
After 15 novels that explore a Washington torn by mob shootouts, gang wars, serial killers and plenty of street vengeance, George Pelecanos may be ready for a little peace

By Carlo Rotella
Sunday, July 20, 2008

"THIS IS KEN-GAR," SAID GEORGE PELECANOS. We were sitting in his car on a quiet, green block of Plyers Mill Road. Bright sunlight warmed a row of modest, well-kept houses facing the old Baltimore & Ohio Railroad tracks.

Pelecanos, one of the most respected crime writers working today, was telling me a story. In the summer of 1972, three white teenagers riding around in a car went looking for trouble in Ken-Gar, a black enclave between Kensington and Garrett Park in Montgomery County. "They threw a firecracker" at a group of young people in front of a grocery store. Also, Pelecanos said, they probably shouted a racial slur. "They were blue-collar kids. They'd heard about other people doing it, but they didn't know you were supposed to do it on the way out." Big mistake. Ken-Gar, a seven-block triangle bounded by the tracks, Rock Creek Park and Connecticut Avenue, is a warren of dead ends. By the time the kids in the car realized that Plyers Mill Road was the only way in or out, they were trapped. Angry residents blocked the street. One of them had a gun.

"One kid jumps out of the car, books off down the tracks. He gets away," Pelecanos said. The other two tried to talk their way out of the jam. "The kid who tries to reason with them gets shot in the back and dies. The other kid gets beat up pretty badly. The police locked down the neighborhood." The gunman was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Pelecanos based his 15th novel, The Turnaround, which arrives in bookstores next month, on the incident. He read court documents and interviewed longtime residents, gathering material that lent itself to his favorite themes: place, local knowledge and community; the interwoven dynamics of race and class; masculinity's rites and burdens; and the near infinite resonance of an act of violence. The peculiar geography and history of Ken-Gar, which was settled by former slaves at the turn of the 20th century, shaped what happened on that August afternoon 36 years ago, and the shots fired and the blows given and taken in the space of a few overheated seconds changed forever the lives of four young men and their families.

Pelecanos, who grew up nearby in Silver Spring and lives there with his wife and three children, was 15 that summer. "I remembered it vaguely," he said, "and I did my research, and I was interested in what it was like to live there back then, but I didn't want to learn too much about the case itself. I wasn't writing journalism. Having too many of the facts of the case would have gotten in the way."

He went on to explain that The Turnaround owes a significant debt to another source that has nothing to do with the Ken-Gar incident. "It also comes from the last scene of 'Josey Wales,'_" he said, referring to Clint Eastwood's post-Civil War western "The Outlaw Josey Wales." "_'We all died a little in that war.' It's about forgiveness."

There wouldn't seem to be much room for forgiveness in hardboiled crime stories or the westerns they descend from, but emotional complexity and understated resolutions enjoy a rising presence in Pelecanos's work. He has wearied of climactic shootouts, blind vengeance and other stock formulas of retribution. "I've been struggling with that," he said. "You want to deliver the genre goods, but in the last few books, I've been delivering them more sheepishly. The Turnaround isn't even really a crime novel. But you need conflict to make a novel, any kind of novel, and I don't know any other way to do it than crime."

Pelecanos is not the kind of crime writer who sets up a series hero and then regularly cranks out comfortable variations on the same book. He has been described as not only the Raymond Chandler and the James Ellroy of Washington but also its Emile Zola and Theodore Dreiser. His fans include the distinguished novelist Jonathan Lethem, who has described Pelecanos's prose as "full of music and pain," the horror titan Stephen King, who has called him "perhaps the greatest living American crime writer," and Michael Connelly, a bestselling writer of psychologically textured mysteries, who has called him "the best-kept secret in crime fiction -- maybe all fiction." Pelecanos's books sell steadily to a loyal audience, but his publisher keeps pushing to raise his profile, to turn a writer often described as a cult figure into a mega-brand like Connelly or Elmore Leonard. There are other ways to measure success, though. Pelecanos enjoys the respect of peers and critics; he played an important part in creating the wildly acclaimed HBO show "The Wire"; and he has branched out into side pursuits, such as writing a war drama for HBO and editing collections of stories set in Washington -- the second of which, D.C. Noir 2: The Classics, due out in September, features the work of Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and Edward P. Jones.

Pelecanos, who is 51, told me: "Sometimes I think 'The Wire' said it all, and I might as well not write any more crime novels. I can feel my energy beginning to dissipate{lcub}hellip{rcub} One thing I didn't realize about this business when I started was that it could be my job to write a novel a year, but it's also my job to take a walk and think." He owes one more book to his publisher, and the contract specifies that it be a crime novel and that it be delivered by the end of the year, but he's not sure in what direction his writing will go after that. Working in the overlap where the crime novelist meets the literary novelist, Pelecanos has always been willing to push his heroes, his city and his storytelling craft through difficult changes.

IN THE SUMMER OF 1968, WHEN PELECANOS WAS 11, he went to work as a delivery boy at his father's diner, the Jefferson Coffee Shop at 19th Street and Jefferson Place NW. He dreamed up serial westerns in his head to amuse himself as he made his rounds on foot. Two months before, the death of Martin Luther King Jr. had sparked riots in Washington, as it had in other American cities. There's a scene in Hard Revolution (2004), Pelecanos's novel about that time, in which 11-year-old Nick Stefanos, who will grow up to become an alcoholic private eye, comes out of Sunday school at his church and hears King's amplified voice, preaching. "That was me," Pelecanos said. "March 31, 1968. I was coming out of St. Sophia, and they had hung speakers outside the National Cathedral, across the street, where he was preaching." King would be murdered in Memphis four days later.

We were standing on the corner of 14th and U streets in Northwest as Pelecanos, an upright, chesty fellow with a deep voice and a manner composed of equal parts reserve and dry good humor, told the story. "Fourteenth burned from all the way down there to all the way up there," he said, making a sweeping gesture with one arm. "Fourteenth, Seventh, H Street, all burned. I took the bus every day down Georgia Avenue, and I could see the ashes. It still smelled of fire, and you could feel that people had changed. It felt like this thing had been lifted. I could see how people treated each other. They were thinking, 'How do we talk to each other now?' There was a lot of tension. Black people were less deferential toward whites, and, at the diner, white people treated the black employees with more respect."

Looking back on that summer, Pelecanos sees himself launched down the path to his calling. "Working at my dad's diner, that was the most important thing. That summer, the first summer -- the riots, the young ladies wearing miniskirts, the music on the radio, it was all there. That's what made me a writer."

Of course, it took more than this original inspiration. For one thing, he had to learn more about the city that would serve as his subject and setting. There's a tendency to assume a mystical connection between a crime writer and "his" city, but close-grained knowledge of a place comes not by inheritance or sentimental osmosis but from curiosity, attention and sustained effort. Working for his father took Pelecanos down Georgia Avenue into Washington, and, later, so did sports. He played pickup basketball in playgrounds around the city, and he played second base on a rec league baseball team that won the District title in 1973, he said. As he entered adulthood, his interest in punk and go-go music and his appetite for movies drew him to clubs and theaters offering cosmopolitan attractions unavailable in Silver Spring. Then there was work: tending bar and selling shoes, stereos and appliances in the District gave him copious opportunities to catalogue the speech and manners of Washington's citizens.

Getting to know the city was half the equation; developing the technique to render it in prose was the other. Unconsciously at first, then with a growing sense of purpose as he sharpened his focus on writing crime stories, Pelecanos stocked his authorial toolbox by assimilating various influences.

His earliest appreciation of the storyteller's craft came from the movies. He said, "I had this book, The Movies, a big book full of pictures, and I just studied it obsessively when I was 8, 9, 10." Steve Rados, an old friend of his, told me: "When we were just getting into our teens, I'd sleep over at his house, and we'd maybe steal a little liquor and watch movies all night, and he would know the director, he would know where this movie fit into the history of Hollywood. He was already getting more than face value out of watching a movie." Pelecanos ate up the standard guy pictures of his youth -- "The Magnificent Seven," "The Great Escape," "The Dirty Dozen," "The Wild Bunch," spaghetti westerns, blaxploitation movies -- and they penetrated into his storytelling DNA. (He listens to Ennio Morricone's operatic movie soundtracks while he writes, and he drives a limited-edition 2001 Ford Mustang GT based even down to its exhaust note on the car Steve McQueen drove in the chase scene in "Bullitt.") But he also extended his interest into the more eclectic fare offered by the Circle Theatre and other D.C. repertory houses: classical Hollywood films, European art movies, Japanese and Hong Kong cinema.

He majored in film during an on-again, off-again college career at the University of Maryland, but he had no prospects in the business. "I was just a Greek guy from D.C. who didn't know anybody," he said. "I wasn't going to make movies." In his senior year, he wandered into a course on crime fiction taught by Charles Mish, who introduced him to a trade he could pursue and master on his own. "I said to myself, This is what I really want to do. I could go sit in a room and do this. I didn't have to ask anybody for anything; I didn't have to sell myself. It changed my life." Pelecanos kept the epiphany to himself. "I was a quiet guy in class. Years later, I wrote to the professor after my first novel came out, and he wrote back, 'Congratulations; I don't remember you.' But I can still tell you what we read: Red Harvest; Lady in the Lake; I, the Jury; The Blue Hammer; Call for the Dead; The Deep Blue Goodbye."

After graduating in 1980, he "read for the next 10 years, just to catch up. Crime fiction was changing then. The traditional private eye novel was dying out." He went back to Horace McCoy, Edward Anderson and other pre-World War II masters of social-realist crime fiction, but he also took note of contemporaries who were stretching the genre. "James Crumley, Kem Nunn's surf noir Tapping the Source, Newton Thornburgh's Cutter and Bone -- they took the form and did something different with it," Pelecanos said. "It wasn't police fiction. It wasn't the detective with the bottle of whiskey in the file cabinet. There wasn't a mystery to solve. It was about people out there, kind of lost after the Vietnam War, a generation knocked off center, and it dealt with that through the crime novel, exploring that world at a street level. I started thinking maybe I can just write about what I know. There are a lot of bars and shoe stores in my early books."

He needed a push, though, to make the jump from reader to writer. He got it from the D.C. punk scene that flourished around hardcore bands such as Fugazi, Minor Threat and Bad Brains. He said: "The whole idea was you didn't have to be a musician, you didn't have to have ties to a record company, you didn't have to be somebody's son. You just picked up a guitar and made something -- maybe it was art, maybe not." DIY, as the punk motto puts it: Do It Yourself. So, Pelecanos did the writer's equivalent of picking up a guitar and making something.

He worked day jobs and wrote on his own time. In Pelecanos's first novel, A Firing Offense (1992), Nick Stefanos, advertising director at an electronics store called Nutty Nathan's, searches for a missing stock boy, a metalhead who has sunk deep into trouble over drugs and money. Pelecanos, who had no agent at the time, sent the manuscript to a single publisher, St. Martin's Press, which bought it and the four that followed. The advances were nowhere near enough to live on: $2,500, $3,000, $3,500. During the 1990s, Pelecanos worked for Jim and Ted Pedas, who had owned the Circle Theatre and other movie houses but had moved into production and distribution. While helping to produce the Coen brothers' early films and distribute John Woo's Hong Kong crime classic "The Killer," among other tasks, Pelecanos honed his novel-writing chops and began to build a loyal audience. He switched to Little, Brown and Company, receiving a $45,000 advance for King Suckerman (1997), a 1970s tale that features a hotly awaited but uniquely disappointing blaxploitation movie. When Miramax bought the rights to the book and hired him to write the screenplay, Pelecanos took a chance and quit his day job. "I told my wife, 'I think I can make a living at this.'_" The movie was never made, one of several near-miss attempts to adapt his novels. Unmade screenplays and elapsed options don't improve book sales, but they do produce welcome infusions of Hollywood money.

His book advances kept growing. The latest, in 2004, was $1.5 million for three novels, the second of which is The Turnaround. The first of the three, The Night Gardener (2006), based on the case of Washington's never-caught serial murderer known as the "Freeway Phantom," got a big push from Little, Brown and made the New York Times bestseller list, a first for Pelecanos. "The trajectory of his sales is steadily upward, and the span of potential readers is unusually broad for him, including readers of traditional crime fiction and literary fiction," said Michael Pietsch, executive vice president and publisher at Little, Brown. The Night Gardener sold 41,829 copies in hardcover, according to Little, Brown. (Nielsen BookScan, which claims to count about 70 percent of sales for a typical hardcover, counted 29,109.) Michael Connelly, who is also published by Little, Brown, routinely sells more than 10 times as many in hardcover, and Pietsch believes that Pelecanos can get to that level with a breakout book connected to a successful movie adaptation. "There's still a lot of gunpowder lying around," said Pietsch, meaning that while The Night Gardener was a major step up in sales for Pelecanos, it didn't touch off the explosion of interest in him that, say, Mystic River did for Dennis Lehane. Little, Brown thinks it can turn Pelecanos into a brand that produces a bestseller every time out.

Whether or not he achieves greater commercial success, Pelecanos said, "I've had a dream career, and at this point more money would be money stacked on top of the money there." Every writer wants more readers, of course, but Pelecanos realizes that he's been able to provide for his family while settling into a deeply satisfying life's work as an artist that would have been impossible to imagine when he was a young man.

He's very clear about what that work is. In an online chat session with readers in 2000, he wrote: "When I started out, I didn't feel as if Washington, D.C., had been fully represented in literature. And by that I mean the real, living, working-class side of the city. The cliche is that Washington is a transient town of people who blow in and out every four years with the new administrations. But the reality is that people have lived in Washington for generations, and their lives are worth examining, I think. I didn't have a specific plan in the beginning, but the way it's worked out, I've pretty much covered the century in Washington, going back to the 1930s, and the societal changes that have occurred there."

In addition to imparting a lot of period-specific information about food, drink, shoes, bars, muscle cars, music, movies, sound equipment, tipping, sales work and how and when to hotbox a cigarette, he has used the formulas of the crime genre to explore the city and its social order. Perhaps the biggest historical theme moving beneath the action is the long engagement of white ethnics and blacks, part marriage and part war, the crucial turning point of which was the riots of 1968. They loom so large in his historical imagination because they mark the fall of New Deal Washington and the hope for unity that shaped it. They mark, as well, the emergence of a harder and more desperate Washington where government -- both federal and local -- was widely understood to be part of the problem, not the principal guarantor of justice and equality of opportunity. Many whites, especially immigrants newly arrived in the middle class, abandoned this declining city in a suburbanizing age.

"WE LIVED RIGHT UP HERE WHEN I WAS LITTLE," Pelecanos said as we cruised slowly through an alley in Mount Pleasant. "The National Zoo's right over there. You could hear the lions roaring at night." He pointed out the back of the house on Irving Street NW that his mother's parents owned back then. "This is where everybody was. Kids played out back, and there were sleeper porches. You slept out here when it was hot. We moved to Silver Spring when I started school."

We got out of the car on the corner of Klingle and Park roads to look at a historical marker, No. 9 on the Mount Pleasant Heritage Trail. On one side of the marker is a photograph taken in 1977 of the residents of Blue Skies, which, a caption explains, was "a group house devoted to antiwar work and social justice." The neighborhood, in transition then, attracted "political activists, artists, and unconventional family groups." There are a couple dozen adults and children in the picture, an integrated countercultural household posing proudly in front of their home at 1910 Park Rd. One of the small boys sitting on the stoop is Adrian Fenty, now mayor of Washington.

Despite his suspicion of institutional power, Pelecanos believes that Fenty has done a good job, finally beginning to right the damage done by decades of capital flight, resegregation and misgovernment. He acknowledged that it might seem odd to hear such boosterish optimism from a writer whose collected works reinforce the city's image as a murder capital and decry fundamental inequities in American society. "But hey," he said, "we've had a couple of good mayors; the construction of the Metro is beginning to pay off; there are finally a few good signs out there." When we drove down H Street NE, he said, "This was black Washington's place to shop, 10 long blocks, and it all burned down. Just now, 40 years later, it's coming around."

On the other face of the historical marker at Klingle and Park is a photograph of the family of another illustrious son of Mount Pleasant: the Pelecanos clan at the table on Thanksgiving Day, 1962. George's older sisters, Alice and Jeannie, and his mother, Ruby, wear Sunday-best dresses, jewelry and makeup. George, who at 5 already has his distinctive sleepy-eyed look, appears to be counting the seconds until he can devour the turkey. His father, Peter, stands over the main course, carving tools at the ready, a hint of a hard little smile on his lips. Crew cut, clean-shaven, projecting banty male confidence in suit and tie, Peter Pelecanos looks like a Spartan variation on Glenn Ford in "The Big Heat."

There's a story of Mount Pleasant in the juxtaposition of the two photographs on the marker, a fragment of a larger story of the city that Pelecanos has told in his novels, but there's also a meditation on the meaning of family. For Pelecanos, history and family coalesce in an interest, running deeply throughout his work, in how his male characters handle the pressures the changing world exerts on their sense of themselves. Michael Connelly, an early supporter of Pelecanos's career who became a friend, told me, "He's totally consumed with the idea of what makes a good man." For Pelecanos, as for a lot of men, any discussion of that topic begins with his father.

"My father never laid a hand on me," Pelecanos said. "He was a badass, and I knew that, and that was enough. He'd boxed, and he was an ex-Marine. He fought on Leyte, real island fighting. I knew he'd killed people with his hands, but he didn't talk about it. Those guys didn't talk about it much."

Andrew Walsh, a friend of Pelecanos since childhood who is now a professor of religion at Trinity College in Connecticut, explained the mythic power that grandfathers and fathers exerted over boys of their generation. "Our grandfathers had come over, alone, from tiny villages in Greece when they were 14 or something, and made it. We knew at first hand the romance of immigrant success. George's grandfather and father worked like dogs, and together with other people like them climbed up from poverty to respectability. And then our fathers had fought in World War II. So we thought we led dull, average lives by comparison."

On his first try at college, Pelecanos had to drop out after one semester to run the family diner for a few months while his father recovered from a heart attack. "I got to do something a lot of boys never get to do until later," Pelecanos told me. "I proved to my dad that I was a man." It was 1975, and he was 18, hanging out with his friends and chasing girls. It took a sustained effort of will to submit to his father's working grind. "For a guy who liked to party, to get up at 4:30 and go [to work], it changed the way my mom and dad looked at me."

His novels are so full of diners that an attentive reader could get a pretty good education in how to operate one. If a customer asks for an old-fashioned item like liverwurst or buttermilk, go get it, and keep a little on hand to encourage return visits; keep the peace among employees by allowing each to choose the music on the radio for part of the day; cut off the cash register tape at 3 p.m. to exempt some of the day's profits from taxes.

The novels are full, as well, of scenes in which fathers and father figures try to teach younger men how to live. In The Turnaround, Alex Pappas, who has lost one son in Iraq, tries to pass on to his younger son both his diner and what he learned from his own father: "Work is what men did. Not gambling, or freeloading, or screwing off. Work." Meanwhile, Raymond Monroe, whose son is serving in Afghanistan, teaches his girlfriend's young son to walk like a man. "Chin up, and keep your shoulders square, like you're balancing a broom handle on there. Make eye contact, but not too long, hear? You don't want to be challenging anyone for no good reason. On the other hand, you don't want to look like a potential victim, either." Sometimes the father figures demonstrate that forgiveness requires more strength than does vengeance, but often the most dramatic lessons-by-example in masculinity come the hard way.

In his fiction, Pelecanos stages again and again an iconic showdown in which a small businessman emerges from behind his counter or walks tall off the sales floor to face off against gangsters. In Hard Revolution, a crew of bank robbers runs afoul of a fellow whom we know well as a type from other Pelecanos novels, a type for whom his father serves as the template: an immigrant who fought on Guadalcanal, operates a small diner in a rough neighborhood downtown and carries a .38. This do-or-die striver has dropped by the bank to deposit the previous day's take, and he's not about to give up his hard-earned American money just because he's outgunned. A bloodbath ensues. Such scenes are, in a sense, valentines to men like Peter Pelecanos, investing hardworking dads with heroic qualities on a par with those of gangsters, private eyes and cowboys.

"There's a line we've talked about in a western, 'Ride the High Country,' that I think is really important to him," Connelly told me: "_'All I want is to enter my house justified.' I think that's George's thing." But steeped though he may be in the seemingly timeless moral certitude of the western, Pelecanos traces the ways in which the definition of a good man, a man who at the end of the day or of his life can truly enter his own house justified, changes over time. His male characters negotiate tricky paths between the traditional manhood represented by his father and the options for masculinity that have opened up since the '60s. The older model may have been potent in its virtues, but it had significant flaws, not least of which was a general acceptance of racism as the natural way of things.

Pelecanos told me a story about a script meeting for "The Pacific," HBO's companion piece to its World War II combat miniseries "Band of Brothers." One reason he accepted the invitation to write for "The Pacific," which is scheduled to air in 2009, was to honor his father's service to his country, but that didn't cause him to shy away from ugly complexity. "Somebody at this meeting brings up the fact that we don't have any black major characters, and then somebody else says that the military was still segregated, and blacks were often forced to do menial jobs instead of fighting. So, I said, how about a scene in which the guys are watching black soldiers clean up the bodies on a landing beach, and they say, 'Look at those niggers. They've got it so easy, they never have to fight'? These are the heroes, characters we care about, and yet they're saying these terrible things, because that's true to what it would have been like." It was too much, even for HBO. "There was this long pause," during which the rest of the creative team considered presenting the heroes of the Greatest Generation as bigots. "Nobody said a word, and after a while they just went on to something else like I'd never spoken."

WE DROPPED BY CARDOZO SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL IN WASHINGTON to visit Frazier O'Leary, who teaches AP English and coaches the baseball team. "My parents went here in the 1930s," said Pelecanos. "It's black and Hispanic now." Pelecanos first visited O'Leary's class five years ago under the auspices of a PEN/Faulkner Foundation program that brings writers into the schools. He has returned regularly.

As we looked out over the empty baseball field, O'Leary, a hale former athlete with a thick white mustache and a paunch, talked about his plans to raise money to renovate it and rename it in honor of the great shortstop Maury Wills, a Cardozo graduate. "I started playing on this field in a semi-pro league in 1967," O'Leary said. "I was the token white guy in the whole league."

He shares with Pelecanos a sense of the riots of 1968 as a turning point in his life, as well as in the city's history. At the time, O'Leary, who had done a tour of duty in Vietnam, was an Army lieutenant in military intelligence stationed outside the city. "They told me to put together a riot platoon," he recalled. Having assembled the soldiers, "I looked around, and I could see that these guys would have deserted the second we got out there. It was 1968. They didn't give a damn about the Army, and they sympathized with the rioters." He never had to lead the platoon into action. He left the Army later that year, got his degree at American University and started teaching in 1971. He has been at Cardozo since 1977. Pelecanos said, "I like them to do Hard Revolution" when he visits O'Leary's AP English class "because a lot of his students don't know about the riots."

Continuing on the theme of violence and its lasting consequences, we fell to talking about Kermit Washington, a local basketball star at Coolidge High School and American University in the late '60s and early '70s who went on to the NBA. "Good player," said Pelecanos. "A strong guy." But all anybody remembers about Washington is that during an on-court altercation between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Houston Rockets in 1977 he hit Rudy Tomjanovich, who was rushing in from the blind side to break up the fight, with an infamous punch that shattered his face and nearly killed him. Tomjanovich, who is white, eventually recovered, played again and went on to coach the Rockets to a championship. Branded as a thug, Washington, who is black, bounced from team to team for a few more seasons before retiring. Tomjanovich forgave Washington in latter years, saying, "He made a mistake, and everyone deserves a second chance."

Then O'Leary brought up a former student who had gone on to college and graduate school. "She's brilliant," he explained, "but her brothers are drug dealers. It's crazy at home; she can't study. She lives in one of the neighborhoods George writes about." Pelecanos asked what she needed. "Just a room someplace quiet," said O'Leary. Pelecanos considered for a moment and said, "Okay, if you do the legwork and get me a piece of paper so I can write it off, I'll finance it."

The two men looked out across the field, a little embarrassed. O'Leary appeared to be crossing a delicate job off a mental to-do list. A look of physical pain crossed Pelecanos's face as he considered the possibility that somebody reading this story might think that he was trying to act like a big shot. A pragmatist suspicious of grand social theories and official initiatives, he believes in "pulling kids through the keyhole one at a time," which requires judicious doses of money as well as sound mentoring.

On the way back to the car he said: "Frazier is one of my heroes, a guy who's really doing something good for kids in this city. You should be writing your story about him."

DAVID SIMON, CO-CREATOR OF "THE WIRE," who recruited Pelecanos to help write and produce the show, described him to me as "a moralist." He meant that Pelecanos, "rooted in the immigrant tradition," is "rigorous about doing everything he said he was going to do and doing it well," but also that Pelecanos centers his writing on characters' struggles to do the right thing in a compromised, difficult world.

Pelecanos has fashioned a distinctive plot structure that allows him to explore those struggles while meeting the demands of the crime story. His novels typically feature a main plot in which a protagonist wrestles with multiple moral problems that offer no easy course of action -- what to do about an implacable enemy, what to do about an incorrigible son, and so on. These problems are often related to family and to the life-changing consequences of acts of violence buried in the past, brewing in the near future, or both. Meanwhile, in an intertwined subplot, one or more doom-seekers crashes heedlessly through the novel, headed for an apocalypse. The moral plots have grown richer and more dominant over time, so that the principal pleasures of reading Pelecanos lie more and more in his portraits of the inner lives of complex characters seen at home and at work, as well as in the evocation of place and time.

As Connelly put it: "George is past the backbone of the book being the investigation of a crime; the backbone will be family, or something like it. George is the ace when it comes to delivering mystery with a message." Pelecanos has worked hard to attain that status, and his peers have taken note.

"Here are the choices if you want to write more than one novel: Get better, stay the same, or get worse," says Laura Lippmann, who writes mysteries set in Baltimore. "George chose to get better with every book." Lehane, another luminary in the tight circle of crime-writing friends that includes Pelecanos, Connelly and Lippmann (who is married to David Simon), divides Pelecanos's novels into three phases. "His early books have a beautiful sense of character, but he's still getting his head around the mechanics of structure. In the middle period, you see rock-solid structure, and by now it's a perfect fusion of obsessive character studies and narrative. At this point, he's comparable to Dreiser, not Jim Thompson." He's a novelist, in other words, who happens to write crime stories.

"I learned to write on the job," says Pelecanos. "I really got out of the first person on The Big Blowdown" his fifth novel (1996), a period piece set in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. "That's where I got to the generational view, getting into the heads of all kinds of characters, and that's when I started to say, Okay, now I'm a writer. From then on, you see more variety, more different kinds of characters. I started writing more social novels." From private eye stories, featuring his troubled alter ego Nick Stefanos and then Derek Strange, a black ex-cop with a deep sense of social responsibility, he ventured out across the crime subgenres -- criminal noirs, pulps, procedurals, historical dramas, tales of average Joes pushed too far. He doesn't outline before he writes, but he does his homework. Relying more over time on research has obliged him to cultivate sources. "I do police ride-alongs, interviews; I go to trials just to listen to the language; and I've made a lot of contacts on the other side, too, people who've done bad things in their lives and are eager to talk."

He has also tried to change some bad habits. He pines for the novice energy of his first novels, he says, but he can't read them now because "I had been timid in those books about being honest about race, and I wanted to change that. I hadn't let the characters speak as they would speak. I was walling them around too much, idealizing the black characters too much. You have to not be afraid to be misinterpreted."

More fully inhabiting his black characters and letting them speak as they would speak has drawn some critics' ire. The author and activist Ishmael Reed has fulminated against Pelecanos, whose black characters, Reed has said, "speak like the cartoon crows in those old racist cartoons." Writing in The Washington Post, the novelist Guy Johnson accused Pelecanos of purveying broad ghetto stereotypes that create "doubt about whether he knows his subjects well enough to capture them."

"For me, it's not so much about black and white as it is about knowing Washington," said Pelecanos. "I get letters from black readers saying, 'Thank you, you got something right.' Like, after Hard Revolution, I heard from a few different people about the riots. Stokely Carmichael has always been blamed for inciting them, but he didn't, and I had to get that right. But, more often, they'll write to say I caught something about how people talk, or they'll say, 'How did you know about that bar?'_" You read Pelecanos for the way his characters experience a workplace moment, the rush of being out among people drinking where there's music, the rhythm of an unremarkable weekday evening in a lower-middle-class household -- not for poetic language, intricate plotting or gloriously inventive action tableaus. Going into people's heads is what he does. "If I shouldn't be allowed to go into a black character's head, then I shouldn't write women, or 'The Pacific,' since those people aren't like me, either."

Pelecanos has pursued his character studies into a variety of fictional people: white and black, male and female, contemporary and historical. Putting them in motion through the plots of crime stories produces surprising results. Nick Stefanos, his first hero, progressively drinks his way out of a starring role and becomes a supporting character in later novels. Every instinct bred by crime stories and action movies encourages a reader to expect that Lorenzo Brown, the ex-con trying to keep his nose clean in Drama City (2005), is headed for a spectacular showdown with gangsters -- but he steers around it. You never see the serial murderer in The Night Gardener, and the frustrated cops don't, either.

Pelecanos was a writer, story editor and producer for "The Wire." He wrote crucial scenes as different as the ex-junkie Bubbles' breakthrough at a 12-step meeting and the western-style standoff in an alley between Omar Little, the street legend who robs drug dealers, and Brother Mouzone, the prim shootist from New York. Pelecanos also created Cutty, a character who turns away from the street life and opens a boxing gym, and gave "The Wire" its Greek gangsters, even providing the background voices shouting in Greek when the cops raided a warehouse. In story meetings, he refereed arguments between Simon and Ed Burns, the show's other co-creator.

"Ed and I are often butting heads in a way that somebody who doesn't know us might think is toxic," Simon told me. "George's essential role was to be the gravitas, to make the decision. We'd present our best arguments, and he'd sit and listen until he couldn't stand it any longer. He was the one with the storytelling chops to decide. He has a really strong ear for theme and idea. He writes books and scripts that are about something. When George says you won an argument, you feel good because it means the idea was good."

Expanding on his description of Pelecanos as a moralist, Simon said: "We didn't know we needed Cutty until George invented him. It's not about plotting, it's about defining some aspect of human endeavor that wasn't covered by other characters. Institutionally, not much is redeemed in 'The Wire,' yet all of us believe in the individual's ability to act. George said, 'We need a moral center.'_"

Burns told me a story about scripting the death of Wallace, a likable corner boy gunned down by his pals. "It could have been just Bodie, who was pretty much a monster back then, who would just walk up and kill him. But that would have left nothing for Poot, and it would have sealed Bodie as a character. The way George wrote it, Bodie can't finish it, and Poot, who's a good friend of Wallace, has to step up and do it. That transcends genre; that's squeezing all the juice out of a scene." Bodie opens up as a character from that point, grappling with a dawning understanding that the large forces bearing down on him make it almost impossible for him to act honorably and survive. "That's why you hire writers like George," said Burns, "because they find what's inside a scene, what's inside the character."

"The Wire," in return, left its mark on Pelecanos. It "changed the way I look at a lot of things," he said. "In the past, I would go down to a drug corner and go, 'Why doesn't the government do anything about this?' Now I see better that they're not gonna do something about it, and just throwing money at it won't work. The people who live there have to take things into their hands."

DRIVING UP GEORGIA AVENUE TOWARD MARYLAND, following the historical route of the Pelecanos family and others who moved up into the suburban middle class, we passed through a redevelopment district. Banners hanging from streetlights announced that "Good Things Are Happening" on Georgia Avenue. Crossing into Silver Spring, we entered a classic post-World War II suburban landscape of detached houses, each set off by a lawn.

"This is where I grew up," said Pelecanos. "Whittington Terrace. It was Jewish, Italian, Greek -- ethnic people buying their first house." We parked at Forest Knolls

Elementary School and got out. From the schoolyard, we could see into the back yard of the house he grew up in. "I climbed the fence and went home every day for lunch," he said. "Same thing in high school. That's how I got in trouble."

He was referring to an accident with a gun when he was 17 in which he nearly killed his pal Frank Carchedi. The boys, who had been tight since first grade, were fooling around with Pelecanos's father's unregistered .38, and it went off. "I blew the side of his face off," said Pelecanos. "He just looked at me and said, 'You shot me.'_"

I asked if the moment resurfaces when he writes violent scenes. "Honestly, yes," he answered. "To shoot somebody at close range like that, you don't forget." He has written elements of the episode into more than one novel, including Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go (1995): "The right side of his jaw was exposed, skinless, with pink rapidly seeping into the pearl of the bone. You're okay, LaDuke, I thought. You turned your head at the last moment and Coley blew off the side of your face. You're going to be badly scarred and a little ugly, but you're going to be okay."

Pelecanos told me that his father had his arms full of groceries when he came home after Carchedi had been rushed to the hospital. "He was carrying these big bags, and he came in, and there was blood all over the walls. The wound had geysered. He just dropped the bags, they slid right out of his hands, and he turned white."

"The truth of it was, it wasn't a real sinister thing," Carchedi, now a successful area businessman, told me on the phone. "It was a couple of teenage kids being knuckleheads, playing around. But it was an important experience, in a way. It made us both stronger, and if anything it made us closer. It was a pretty lonely place out there when it happened." No criminal charges were filed; the men remain close. Pelecanos is Carchedi's daughter's godfather, and he named the mayor in "The Wire" after his friend.

Carchedi said: "It was more or less a flesh wound, which sounds funny to say, like Monty Python or something, considering how bad it looked and the surgery I had to have. But it was a bloody mess, and it changed us." One affereffect of the episode he detects in his old friend's writing is a deep respect for the transformative power of violence, part of a larger skepticism about the fantasy figure of the action hero with a gun. "Reading his books, on the surface you think that the way to be is the characters who are the tough guys, fast and loose on the edge, alpha-male types. You feel like kind of a loser because these guys are out there drinking and playing, but they usually end up being losers. We're attracted to the fantasy of these guys, but as the book wraps up, it's the guy who gets up and goes to work in the morning who ends up really cool."

The shooting drew in the starkest terms the line between youthful hijinks and the kind of catastrophe that can end a life or warp it beyond redemption. Carchedi said: "It was a turbulent time. Things were different in the '60s and '70s, and every kid wasn't tethered by a cellphone, but that was as far out there as we ever got. We were basically good kids. We did well in school; we listened to our parents. We'd get out on the edge. We took risks, and we'd do crazy things that parents now, who are so on their kids, would be horrified by, but one of our bonds was that we knew we weren't gonna go over that edge. A lot of that was the strength of our families -- blue-collar, ethnic. That was behind us, and kept us accountable." The shooting was the two boys' big mistake, and they still wonder at the sheer dumb luck that allowed them to recover from it.

Carchedi feels that dwelling on the incident can lead to a romantic misreading of Pelecanos that confuses a dutiful, responsible family man with one of his own characters. "If you look at the stories written about George, they focus on the macho side, the tough side -- and he does have that side. He was on the streets; he was that kind of kid and young adult. But he's mellowed, and he's quicker to talk about family than about this other stuff. George is really focused on family, in his books and in his life. He's taken a path that a lot of guys in his position would not have taken. I know for a fact that he's turned stuff down because he wanted to stay here with his family. He's flown high, but he could have flown even higher."

"MY WORLDVIEW CHANGED BECAUSE WE HAD CHILDREN," Pelecanos said. We were sitting in the den in his house, not far from the house in which he grew up. Books with his name on their spines lined two shelves. His wife, Emily, 50, and their kids -- Nick, 17, Peter, 15, and Rose, 11 -- came and went, attending to weekday evening business.

Pelecanos was talking about a turning point in his life, his experience in Brazil in 1993, when he and Emily went there to adopt Peter. (Nick and Peter are adopted from Brazil; Rose from Guatemala.) They had document problems and ended up spending the whole fall there. They were struck by the nakedness of the poverty and despair they saw. "You couldn't walk around at night; there were fences with nails in them around the houses, kids with murder in their eyes. Here it's more hidden. It radicalized me a little bit, and it made me want to reach a bit higher, like Steinbeck."

Thinking about the changes in his writing encouraged by fatherhood, he said: "The answer to 'What makes a good man?' has changed. Some of the men stop themselves. They're more in control of their impulses. And if they cross the line, they know they'll have to give up what they are."

Carlo Rotella, director of American studies at Boston College, last wrote for the Magazine about WaterFire, an environmental art piece in Providence, R.I. He can be reached at

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company