Pelecanos has been haunted by an incident in which he accidentally shot a good friend in the face with his father’s .38 special at the age of seventeen. His precise and evocative exploration of violence has defined his work from the start. He is concerned primarily with working-class and lower-class inhabitants of Washington, D.C.; with children whose consciences have been deformed by society; and with broken men and women in desperate need of atonement and some sort of human communion. He is a master at capturing the various voices of District of Columbia inhabitants—punks, loners, gangbangers, workaholics, alcoholics, drug addicts, and pretty much anyone whose voice has been lost in the mess of the city. His books are never concerned with mere social criticism, but Pelecanos is surely intent on telling the stories of the capital city’s million sinners. Never writing mere tales of detection, he simply sets the oldest hard-boiled stories of them all—Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, stories about hard falls from grace, about sin and redemption—in his city, a place that he knows inside out.
Like Ernest Hemingway and Elmore Leonard, Pelecanos is a clean and precise writer who chooses his words carefully. His language not only makes his work accessible to the masses but also is a reaction against often stilted “high literature.” Above all, Pelecanos is concerned with the sounds and rhythms of American speech, with the language of the streets, and with the dangerous and the damned. He has no interest in the academy, instead concerning himself with autodidacts, with those who have been baptized by fire.
Similarly, the Pelecanos hero, like the Hemingway hero, must operate under extreme conditions and must perform his or her duties with grace under pressure. He or she must be able to take punishment. Consider Pete Karras in The Big Blowdown. His sins lead him to be wounded horribly. He never complains about it, though the quality of his life seriously deteriorates after his grievous wounding. The only thing he can do is to make one last decent gesture, a gesture that shows the goodness of which he is capable. In Karras’s case (as in the case of many hard-boiled heroes), he saves a prostitute from a life ruled by heroin and nasty pimps. The Pelecanos hero must also hold fast to his or her work, friends, and loved ones. Like Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, Pelecanos’s exemplars are sound of heart even when their consciences falter, and they exhibit physical durability, always maintaining a hard-boiled pose. On the other hand, criminals and other antiexemplars in the Pelecanos universe are marked by their inhumanity, phoniness, or sloppy sentimentality.
The definition of hard-boiled in the Oxford English Dictionary is “hardened, callous; hard-headed, shrewd.” This is a fine rundown of Pelecanos’s work. His fiction, no matter what else it is, is certainly not soft. He is not concerned with softness and sentimentality, which are equated with weakness. He is wholly concerned with toughness, with maintaining a tough pose even if in a broken, battered condition.
A Firing Offense
Pelecanos’s first novel, A Firing Offense, introduces young Nick Stefanos, who weaves his way through Pelecanos’s District of Columbia for...
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