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George Pelecanos: How to use popular music properly in modern crime fiction

September 9, 2010

George Pelecanos: Probably has regular fights with his missus about CD collection storage

‘…as Pelecanos’ beloved Springsteen (whose Adam Raised a Cain name-checks Steinbeck’s classic) once put it: “Man, the dope’s/that there’s still hope.” It’s an idea, not always popular in these cynical, fatalistic times, and one that you certainly don’t often see in crime fiction, but Pelecanos is unrepentant: the choices we make matter, and damn it, there is hope for the future.’
Kevin Burton Smith

I wrote this for my other blog some time ago. Pelecanos evokes a city and its times like very few others.

ACCOMPANYING the 2004 issue of George Pelecanos’ stand out novel, Hard Revolution, was a CD of classic soul music, the music of 1968 as Washington and a host of other predominantly black cities burned amid the riots which followed the murder of Dr Martin Luther King.
It may have been a straight forward attempt at joining the multi-media age of cross platform marketing which typified much of the early 2000s, but it highlights the centrality of music to Pelecanos’ 16 novels.
The link between social events, either grand or small, and music is one of the key characteristics of Pelecanos’ work.Get this straight, Pelecanos uses music in the way that great crime writers do: to illustrate a key facet of the time or of a key character’s psyche. Some writers have been accused of shoe horning in hip music, and even the best do sometimes cloyingly throw in classics. It becomes easy to spot.

But, like Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus and his love of prog and dour 70s folk rock and Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander and his deep attachment to opera, Pelecanos’ characters are defined by the centrality of music to their lives. Music is in their background, just as Wallander a former classical hopeful, has the music in his DNA.

In Pelecanos, music touches everyone as it plays on Washingon DC FM stations frequently name checked in the car journeys and diners of the stories. Songs and artists literally bleed through into the prose setting the background to the plot devices making them seem more authentic. Just as it does in such an unobtrusive way in the unfolding narrative of The Wire.
In his Pelecanos’ first novel, A Firing Offence, Nick Stefanos a former punk kid who works as a marketing manager for an electrical outlet (like Pelecanos once did), takes his alcohol loving friends to a series of bars playing Camper Van Beethoven in the car while a Cure saxophone solo and The Pogues join up along the way on a bar crawl. There is a vividness in what this music evokes in its time and atmosphere.
Music also is central to many characters’ lives, it footnotes their existence and their remembrance of those years. Record store worker and coke head Dimitri Karras, caught up in the mid 80s drugs explosion of Washington in The Sweet Forever, hits the famous DC hard core club the 9:30:

‘…How Soon Is Now’ played through the sound system. This would be the single Karras would think of when he thought of 1986, the way ‘Brass in Pocket’ would always mean 1980 and ‘Dancing with Myself’ would always trigger 1981 in his head.’

There is another wonderful episode of social history after this section, when Dimitri and the girl he has picked up, do a ton of coke and shag listening to The Dream Syndicate,Green on RedThe Jesus and Mary Chain, The Pogues and The Replacements on vinyl. As the coke runs out Karras, depressed, manages to get a tiny amount for the last miniscule line, chopped squealingly with his razor,

‘The tap tap tap of the blade on the glass. His dealer called that the mating call of the Eighties.’

In Shoedog, perhaps Pelecanos’ least acclaimed novel released a decade after it was written, the central character Constantine, a drifter who gets dragged into a hellish situation, marks his joining of the army,

‘It was the month of October in 1975 and Constantine would always peg the date of his matriculation into bootcamp as the time he was a mild Springsteen fan (‘Kitty’s Back’ was his Katherine’s song) and Bruce was on the cover of both Time and Newsweek on the rack. Mal and Gary were Bachman Overdrive Freaks…’

In a throwaway paragraph at the start of a chapter in Right as Rain, perhaps the best book of his Derek Strange/ Terry Quinn series, Pelecanos’ choice of music signifies the genre he works in. It’s not simply crime or thriller but an updating of the much maligned western genre, Strange checks his stocks listening to Elmer Bernstein’s soundtrack to The Magnificent Seven. It’s a tellingly minute and hugely important moment in the novelist’s career.

In another Quinn Strange novel, Hell to Pay, the former character is reading James Carlos Blake’s hardboiled western book The Pistoleer, the clues are all there for anyone interested.

But we have to return to Hard Revolution to see the complex interplay between music, society and the personal motivations of key characters at its best. Early on, Strange’s brother Dennis and his drug buddy Kenneth Willis cruise, high on reefer, and listening to classic soul. Dennis, tortured by his addictions and heading towards the radicalism of the Nation of Islam (through his reading of black awareness books like The Colonizer and the Colonized and The Wretched of the Earth), and Willis listen to Percy Sledge.

Dennis has no truck with this old soul, preferring the proto funk of Sly Stone and The Chambers Brothers, who represent a new kind of blackness.

‘Percy Sledge? To Dennis he was one of those old time, latern on the lawn Negroes, a prisoner to the record company. He dressed in tuxedos. He still wore pomade in his hair.’

For Dennis, the old time night clubishness of Sledge is tantamount to Uncle Tom-ism, he represents the black past, Sly is a radical new future. Music represents both the future and its tussle with the old. The interplay between character, class and social change and the relationship with the music of the time is hugely important in Hard Revolution.
In Pelecanos’ fiction music has the power to represent characters’ essences and evoke all eras of our time in way that few other authors ever achieve.

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