Interview: 'The Cut' author George Pelecanos
Over the course of my many reviews of "The Wire" and "Treme," I've frequently discussed the contributions of George Pelecanos, whom David Simon usually (but not always) asks to handle the most brutal deaths of the most beloved characters. (Pelecanos and I discussed this in an interview towards the end of my "Wire" season 3 reviews, and then again after he played Angel of Death in "Treme" season 2.) But I've only ever discussed his other, more prolific career as a crime novelist in passing. With next week's publication of "The Cut," the first book in a planned new series about private investigator Spero Lucas, I decided it was time to turn the spotlight largely onto that part of his career.
As I've said in the past, it's not a coincidence that Pelecanos and Simon wound up working together. Though Pelecanos' books are set an hour's drive away from Baltimore, on the streets of his Washington, DC hometown, they involve characters who could very easily interact with the ones from "The Wire," and are often built around similar themes about the toll of crime and drugs on the American city. His books are peppered with references to popular music, cars, and bits of Greek and African-American culture. And given his rep among "Wire" fans, it's a bit amusing that the way in which the books most strongly differ from the TV show is that they still hold out hope in a way "The Wire" doesn't; things usually (but not always) work out okay in the end for the characters we like.
Pelecanos has written several novel series prior to this one, two of them involving private detectives (Nick Stefanos, and then Derek Strange and his partner Terry Quinn), one spanning several decades in the life of Washington and best friends Marcus Clay and Dimitri Karras, but for the last several years he's written standalone novels. (His research for one of those, "Drama City," helped inform the creation of Cutty Wise.) The new book fits very comfortably and entertainingly along the axis of his work (as well as his urban crime contemporaries like Dennis Lehane, who's also written for "The Wire") and introduces a distinct new hero in Spero Lucas, adopted son of a Greek-American family, Iraq War veteran, and an unlicensed private eye who runs a side business retrieving stolen property of all kinds (in the first book, it's a drug dealer's marijuana shipment) for a 40% cut.
Pelecanos was on vacation this past week in advance of the book tour, but he was kind enough to respond to a few e-mailed question about the new book, the relationship between his novels and his TV writing, and more.
Where did the idea for Spero and his occupation come from?
I had written a short story about the Lucas parents and their family of adopted and biological children(*). Spero was one the siblings and I ended the story with him as a Marine fighting in Fallujah. Around this time I met several veterans who were working in DC as investigators for criminal defense attorneys. So it seemed to be a natural progression that Spero would come home and take such a job. The side work he does, taking a 40% cut for retrieving stolen property, was purely a fictional conceit and allowed me to ramp up the level of conflict. As some have astutely pointed out, Spero is a spiritual cousin to Travis McGee, one of my favorite characters in crime fiction.(**) Like McGee, Spero is a physical guy with similar carnal appetites. It was fun to write about a young dude who likes women and also likes them in bed.
(*) That short story, called "Chosen," will be given away, with a purchase of "The Cut," at the appearances Pelecanos does on his book tour, which begins Wednesday night at the Barnes & Noble on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. (He'll be appearing alongside Laura Lippman, a rightly-acclaimed crime novelist in her own right, as well as the wife of David Simon.)
(**) And if you're also a McGee fan, HitFix's Drew McWeeny has started up a Travis McGee Book Club, which began at the start of this month with the first book, "The Deep Blue Good-by." His review of "Nightmare in Pink" should be published on September 1 at the Motion/Captured blog.
What would you say clearly separates Spero from Nick Stefanos, Karras & Clay or Derek Strange, either in terms of the kind of man he is or the kinds of stories you'll be telling with him?
Strange never picks up a gun in any of the contemporary novels that feature him as a main character. I decided early on that this would never be an option for him. Stefanos, Karras and Clay reluctantly get involved in some violent acts, whether out of necessity or as self-proclaimed protectors of their community. Spero has been trained to kill and at the same time he’s into his city and loves his mom and brother. Those elements of his psyche are not exclusive of one another. He nears the line of amorality and maybe he crosses it. I’m intrigued with the possibilities of this character and where I can take him.
You've been doing standalone novels for a while. What made you think the time was right to start a new series?
"The Cut" could very well have been a standalone. When I got to the end of it I found that I was still interested in this guy and the world he walks through. Then my publisher got a look at the manuscript and we agreed that I should write another Lucas novel…one more, at least. In the meantime, this summer, I wrote a novel called "What It Was," featuring a young Derek Strange, set in 1972. It’s the literary equivalent of one of my beloved 70s crime films. Obviously I’m not one for making firm plans in terms of my career. But I can tell you that I’m having a hell of a lot of fun.
Also, I've heard from some of your peers that there's a kind of literary snobbery where an author's standalone work is considered inherently superior to what they do as ongoing series. Has this been something you've encountered? If so, did it give you any pause about starting up a new series?
It’s true that in a standalone novel there is the advantage of surprise. From the reader’s perspective it feels as if anything can happen, including the death of the protagonist. But you can’t deny the impact of series characters like McGee, Dave Robicheaux, Marlowe, Spenser, Parker…the list goes on. These characters are rightly beloved by readers. I do believe that a series should end after a few books. After that there is little credibility left for a character who seems to have no psychological scars after repeatedly participating in acts of violence. And nobody has ever said that the twelfth novel in the series was as good as the first or the third. You should know when to get off the stage.
For the benefit of readers who know you from "The Wire" and "Treme" but haven't read many (or any) of your books, what would you say are the elements of your literary work that are most similar to what you've done with David Simon? And where do you feel your books are most obviously different from the TV stuff?
I’ve written 17 novels. The first part of my career I was trying all sorts of things out. Punk rock hardboiled detective novels (the Nick Stefanos books), pulp/noir ("Shoedog"), gangster epics ("The Big Blowdown"), outsized crime novels influenced by genre films ("King Suckerman") and then the social crime novels ("Drama City," "The Sweet Forever," all of the Derek Strange novels, culminating in "Hard Revolution") which were very similar in tone, setting, and politics to what we were doing on The Wire. In fact, David Simon hired me after reading "The Sweet Forever." I feel as if we closed the book definitively on the urban story with The Wire. Consequently, I shifted gears, and my last few books have been standalones that look at issues of masculinity and the relationship between fathers and sons. "The Cut" is a return to what I was doing early on. A straight-on, adrenalized crime novel. Take that to the halls of academia and smoke it.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org