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what it was

19 june 2012

What It Was is the past tense of the 1970s vernacular greeting "what it is" – past tense, or perhaps inverse; at any rate, something you say reflectively to somebody you know well upon parting from them, maybe forever. At any rate, so it's used in George Pelecanos's nostalgic novel of that title, as two desperate villains shake hands before the final gunfight (224). But by extension, the whole story is "what it was," the odd, transitional, exhilarating Watergate year, 40 years before protagonist Derek Strange remembers it for a friend of his.

"This ain't about me," Strange protests (5), and indeed he isn't the first-person narrator; but like all characters through whom a story is reflected, it ends up being somewhat more about them than they'd protest, even if they wouldn't play such a central role in another's retelling of the same events. The murderous episodes from the summer of '72 that Strange recounts are a central part of his being "a man." I almost said "becoming a man," but Strange's andrology doesn't work that way. One is a man unconsciously, destined to certain male behaviors, and one grows up by learning to channel and dominate that masculinity.

The twentysomething Derek Strange, in 1972, is given a commission to find a missing ring. The ring has been stolen by a murderer, but murder isn't Strange's bailiwick: "private detectives only solved murders in movies and dime novels" (51). Anyway, this murder doesn't need a whole lot of solving. The killer, Red Jones, "goes off" on a tear of machismo-fueled crime, deliberately messing with gangsters who have more and more dangerous means of revenge at their disposal.

All Strange wants to do is to return the ring to its owner, though even the provenance of the ring is in doubt. Corruption and deception rule in Derek Strange's Washington, DC; about the only character who doesn't lie copiously to get what he wants is the unspeakable Red Jones himself. Both Strange and his mentor, homicide detective Frank Vaughn, are capable of bending the rules in their favor, but in this they're no different from, and a good bit more admirable than, the powers that run the city. Of course, it was ever thus in the genres of private-eye novels and procedurals; and with Vaughn and Strange tracking Red Jones from different angles, What It Was is a little of both.

What It Was is the newest in a now-substantial series of Strange books – yet another new favorite series for my ever-expanding bookshelf. (I speak metaphorically; my literal bookshelves are bowing under the weight of these crime series, crammed in every way I can manage. I only wish they expanded.) I like Pelecanos's writing in this installment a lot; his management of his plot arcs (which eventually converge on a deadly meeting, with all the different bad guys contesting custody of Red Jones with Strange and Vaughn) is exemplary. Pelecanos is prey to some odd, compulsive tics that he tries to palm off on his characters, treating them as theirs: he has to tell you exactly what song's on the radio (down to the record company and recording number, one of Derek Strange's fascinations), and he has to tell you the precise specifications of all the technology, especially the automobiles. He's also a little fond of itemizing his characters' period clothing. But after you let him orient himself in the world of 1972 (well-evoked, as far as my memory serves), he gets on briskly with his story.

Pelecanos, George. What It Was. New York: Little, Brown [Hachette], 2012.

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