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What It Was

February 26, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

I mentioned two months ago that I had given up reading George Pelecanos’s DC-based crime novels. Back in September, Marilyn Stasio featured his latest, The Cut, in her NYT Sunday Book Review crime roundup. Looking for books to read that coming week in Nantucket, I ignored it, but was inspired by her briefer remarks about the third in Martin Walker’s series about Bruno, the Dorgogne police chief. That led, as I wrote regularly throughout the fall, to my reading the first Bruno novel while in Nantucket, then in quick succession the second and third, and finally the fourth (not yet available in the US, so I ordered it in hardcover from UK Amazon).

I mentioned in the same December post that in Stasio’s survey of notable crime books of 2011, she included The Cut under the heading “Favorite New Sleuth.” I ignored it once again, this time being inspired by her listing of Sebastian Rotella’s Triple Crossing — reviewed with Pelecanos’s and Walker’s books in that very same Labor Day roundup — as both her favorite debut novel and favorite action thriller.

But my Pelecanos resistance was broken down at last, and for the silliest of reasons — cost. In the NYT a month ago, Janet Maslin reviewed a still newer Pelecanos novel, What It Was. I was surprised he had released another less than half a year after the last one. What especially got my attention was this:

Mr. Pelecanos writes a lot of books. His publisher seems particularly intent on finding readers for this one. It is available in an unusual array of formats: $35 hardcover (a handsome boxed edition decorated with an Afro pick); eye-catching $9.99 paperback with a big red Fury on its cover; an e-book with the bargain price of 99 cents, a first for Little, Brown (though it will rise to $4.99 a month after publication); and the usual audio-book CDs.

Ninety-nine cents? I may not care much for Pelecanos anymore, but you never know. In case I have a change of heart, I may as well grab it before the price increase. I resisted for a couple of weeks, until Stasio, in yet another Sunday NYT crime roundup, once again led off with Pelecanos. It wasn’t clear if she was enthusiastic, and anyway I didn’t want to read the details and learn too much of the plot, but she seemed positive. So I downloaded it.

Last Monday, a holiday for me, I had spent the morning finishing Donovan Hohn’s Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them (which I wrote about here). Wondering what to read next, I found myself drawn to What It Was, perhaps because it’s short. Thursday night, I finished it.

Is it worth 99 cents? Sure. I mean, that’s really cheap. Of course it is. And it’s still available at that price.

The book takes us back to the spring and summer of 1972, the early days in the private detective business for Derek Strange, one of Pelecanos’s strongest recurring characters. As Stasio explains, “Pelecanos is crazy for details, so all these particulars — the colorful names, the flashy clothes, the sexy cars and soulful music — add to the big picture he’s continually drawing of crucial moments in America’s changing history, as viewed from the streets.”

There’s a lot of music, on LPS, 45s, and AM radio, and a great scene at an outdoor Roberta Flack-Donny Hathaway concert. I hadn’t remembered, but Flack’s version of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face was released that March and hit #1 in April, staying there through the time of the book. Like some of the characters who find themselves at the concert, I wasn’t much of a fan of it.

Well, things could be worse, and let me assure you, soon enough they were. For, soon enough, there was Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl), the song I identify with the summer of 1972, the hottest summer of my life. A story for another day, perhaps. The short version is that I spent much of the summer in New Brunswick, New Jersey, with no air-conditioning in either the dorm I lived in or the car I was driving, a car equipped with AM only. I can’t think of New Brunswick without hearing the song, played incessantly as I drove along the Raritan River, or on the Jersey Turnpike on my weekly trips back home to Long Island. Brandy, Brandy, Brandy. I couldn’t get it out of my head. It was torture. Here, hear for yourself:

I’m losing the thread here. What can I say? There’s better Pelecanos, but What It Was is entertaining. And 99 cents. Plus, if you’re a Derek Strange fan, you won’t want to miss it.

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