I’ve read all of Pelecanos’ (who’s known by lots of folks for his work writing some of the best episodes of The Wire) novels and my husband wrote his MA thesis on Pelecanos’ early series, the DC Quartet (back when Pelecanos was only known by crime fiction nerds), so it’s hard for me to look at his books in isolation—I always find myself thinking about them in comparison to his other works.
In particular, I have a nostalgic affection for The Sweet Forever (Goodreads, Amazon) and The Big Blowdown (Goodreads, Amazon), which are raw and somewhat less self-conscious than his later, longer novels. Lit-fic fans tend to prefer Pelecanos’ Derek Strange novels because the social commentary is more overt, but I love the strong sense of time and place in the earlier ones.
Fortunately, Pelecanos’ latest release, What it Was, follows the style of his earlier, shorter hard-boiled crime novels.
Yes, the social commentary is there, but like The Sweet Forever (my favorite Pelecanos which is set against the backdrop of Len Bias’ death) and even Nick’s Trip, you have to work for it. Instead, the novel paints a multi-layered picture of a specific time and place and people, all wrapped into a classically-structured crime novel.
What it Was follows Derek Strange (he’s the main character in several other novels as well) in the ’70s as Strange tracks down a cheap ring for a client (he’s a private investigator). As expected, there’s a whole lot more involved in this case than simply a piece of costume jewelry, and Strange finds himself encroaching on the investigation of his former DC Police Department partner as the two both separately pursue a network of seedy individuals associated with their respective cases.
The excesses of the decade are very alive in What it Was.
The clothes, the cars, the personalities and all very, very 1970s. I actually have a hard time reading books or watching movies set in this era (the decade of my birth, incidentally), as it always seems so ridiculous. I mean, come on… I just don’t want to believe that bell bottoms and disco were real things! However, in crime fiction it really works, because the genre by its very nature is rather over-the-top. What it Was embraces the ridiculousness of the 70s and helps propel the story.
However, my big rub with What it Was, like many of Pelecanos’ other books, is the gender dynamic. Invariably, the men are troubled, tormented and flawed, flawed, flawed, while the women are outsized characters, and not particularly nuanced—and such was the case in this latest offering. Every time I crack open a Pelecanos novel, I hope for more thoroughly fleshed out female characters and a guy or two who aren’t complete screw ups with regard to their relationships with women. With that said, it’s the nature of the genre, and I don’t find (as I have in the books of many other male authors in the genre) anything inherently problematic in the treatment of female characters.
I discourage folks not familiar with Pelecanos’ work from starting with What it Was. Pelecanos’ novels are very interconnected (even across different series—this particualr novel has its original in The Night Gardener, an excellent standalone), so it would be wise to start with the first Derek Strange novel, Right as Rain (which is also my favorite featuring this character) to become familiar with the characters and setting. If you end up enjoying Pelecanos’ style, I encourage you to rewind back to the D.C. Quartet, which really captures that incredible city through four novels spanning several decades. In fact, The Sweet Forever, is one of the books I recommend more frequently when men ask me for book recommendations.
Finally, I have to say something about the creative pricing structure for What it Was.
Hachette priced the ebook at 99 cents for preorders and during the first month of release (now it’s priced at what is still a very consumer-friendly $4.99), had a relatively affordable paperback (Pelecanos’ books have been released in pricey hardback form for a number of years now) and then also published a special, limited edition signed hardback. To me, this reflects an excellent awareness of the diversity of what readers want out of books. I didn’t hesitate to preorder the ebook without even reading the synopsis, thanks to the price point. But, with that said, the expensive, limited edition hardback is also appealing, because we have all of Pelecanos’ novels on our bookshelves, as he’s a favorite author. I really hope that this has been successful for Hachette and that other publishers consider experimenting with similar options. (Also, as a design dork, I have to say I love the cover—it seems to be one on which folks are quite divided.)
Finally, I have to say, hooray for Pelecanos telling this fast-moving little story in relatively few pages (around 270). Crime novels are trending toward doorstopper territory these days, and I miss the succinct nature of shorter works such as What it Was.
Verdict: Recommended (but not for Pelecanos newbies)