George Pelecanos talks about "The Cut"

George Pelecanos's 17th and latest novel, "The Cut," chronicles the seamy side of Washington, D.C.

Pelecanos says all his novels are straight from the street. "I’m out all the time," he says. "I can’t sit in a room and make things up."

Stephen King calls George Pelecanos “perhaps America’s greatest living crime writer,” a compliment that now accompanies each successive Pelecanos title.

Even factoring in the qualifier, the compliment is heady territory, putting Pelecanos in a league with – or above – the likes of Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly, and Scott Turow, to name but a few prime suspects.

Whatever his rank, Pelecanos has built his audience through steady production, chronicling the seamy side of Washington, D.C., unknown to plenty of locals and tourists alike. This month marks the arrival of The Cut, the author’s 17th novel.

It features 29-year-old Iraq war veteran Spero Lucas, a resourceful if morally malleable protagonist.

Lucas is adopted, loves his Greek mother and brother, misses his dead father and dreads the prospect of working a traditional office job.

Instead, he works here and there for a defense attorney, digging up evidence, often by unconventional means. To keep the cash flowing, Spero becomes a for-hire recovery specialist, charging a flat 40% fee, thus the novel’s title. His specialty is stolen goods, a proposition as dubious as it sounds.

Cocky, with questionable judgment, Spero seems sure to win readers over with his combination of confusion and confidence. His creator takes Spero all over DC, from roguish diners to scenic suburban kayaking spots and everywhere in between.

Beyond bikes and kayaks, Spero proves proficient in matters such as tracking guns and property. He’s dead-on, too, when it comes to assessing the racism which determines which murders matter and which ones don’t in mainstream circles. In that other world, the blue-collar realm of Washington that is too often overlooked for all but the most spectacular crimes, Spero struggles to protect the innocent swept up by the usual troubles: greed, violence, money, drugs.

With this novel, Pelecanos delves into the plight of so many veterans coming home from years of war with a muddled sense of what’s next. The story avoids preachy generalities and zeroes in on the gritty flavor of young guys returning with scars of one kind or another, adrenaline-junkies who find it hard to relate to peers who stayed home, oblivious to GEDs and IEDs alike.

For the 54-year-old Pelecanos, whose moonlighting gigs have included writing for HBO’s acclaimed series "The Wire" and now as a producer on "Tremé," the possibilities for chronicling crime and its devastating effects seem all but endless. In a recent telephone interview, he discussed what inspired "The Cut," how he stays current on street slang and selling women’s shoes. Following are excerpts from that conversation.

On how the novel began:
I’m happy with it. I did what I wanted to do. You want to get where your intent was in the beginning. With this one, I wanted to write a straight-up crime novel that was contemporary in the sense that in the background there are things that are going on here in my city. Talking about the plight of the veterans coming back home and what they’re going to do. It sort of came about from just meeting people out here. I had met a few guys who were veterans and working as private investigators for criminal attorneys in D.C. There was a pattern there. These guys were good at their job. They didn’t have any fear, they went into parts of the city that a lot of people didn’t want to go into and they were jacked-up to do it. They had no desire to pursue desk jobs or go into the corporate world or anything like that. They were suited for this.

On the notion of how war has changed the current crop of veterans:
The other thing I was thinking of was a young guy who comes back, who missed those years here. And then it would be really difficult to pick it up again, to go into a bar and sit around with people who were being ironic and talking about things these guys couldn’t relate to. [Spero] is a young guy who has definite appetites.

On whether Spero Lucas will return:
I’m going to write one more, for sure. Because I held back on going too deep into this guy and that was deliberate. I wanted to explore him more. That kind of determines [whether to write a sequel]. That and commerce. But the main part of it is am I still interested, and I am.

On personal elements in his novels:
My other books are much more autobiographical and have had long sections set in diners very much like my dad’s. [Pelecanos worked in his father’s diner starting at age 11.]. And shoes stores – I sold women’s shoes all through college. And I sold electronics, stereos, appliances. I’ve written whole books about that stuff. The only thing in this book that comes out of me is, even though I’m 20 years older than this guy, I’m out there on my bike every day, in a kayak often. I do a lot of physical things, kind of like a saddle-eye view of the city. I’m always out there. The things in the book, the house [Spero] burgles and where he fights the guy in the church parking lot, I’ve walked all those places at night to see what I’d see. I don’t have a super imagination. I have to get out there and see all this stuff. I’ll probably never write a book outside my hometown.

On how writing for TV affects his novels:
Mechanically, it hasn’t impacted me. But I think I’ve become a better writer. It’s almost 10 years ago I started [on "The Wire"]. The books get better. One of the reasons is I was in a room with a lot of very smart people who were much more articulate than I am. They could articulate the process of writing. I had never been to writing school. It was fascinating to sit around with smart people who could talk about it. A writers’ room in television can be brutal. If they think it’s trite or trivial, you’re going to get told.

On including heavy dialogue in his novels:
I think I’ve always had an ear for it. Who knows what it is, I have an ear for it. I’ve always been an observer and a listener. Even taking the bus downtown when I was working for my dad when I was 11 years old, every day I couldn’t wait to get on that bus just to watch people and listen to them talk. And we were going through the blue-collar part of town. I love the poetry in urban language. I’m not talking about color, I’m talking about people in the city. I’ve never lived anywhere else.

On staying relevant with slang and style:
You have to stay engaged. I still live in a neighborhood that is two miles from where I grew up. I could live in a different place, but I know that if I leave here, I’ll get disengaged from the people I’m writing about. And I like it. I’m out all the time. I can’t sit in a room and make things up.

On paper vs. e-books:
Paper. Didn’t even have to think of that. I don’t own a device.

On what he’s reading:
I just came back from my vacation and I read "Empire Falls" by Richard Russo. I love those kinds of books. Richard Ford, Richard Russo, these guys that write these big novels about Americans that have great characters. Right before that, I read the Vietnam novel "Matterhorn" [by Karl Marlantes], which I think is a classic. I felt like it was on the level of James Jones, Norman Mailer. It was the Vietnam novel we had been waiting for. It honestly tackles issues of race that were present over there during the war and it’s a great story. And he’s not afraid to tell the truth. That separates the wheat from the chaff.

Erik Spanberg is a Monitor contributor.

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