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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

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By Carlo Rotella
Sunday, July 20, 2008; Page W08

"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.

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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."


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