27th Jan2013

Book Review – What It Was

by Lloyd Paige


What It Was By George Pelecanos

The Synopsis

Washington, D.C., 1972. Derek Strange has left the police department and set up shop as a private investigator. His former partner Frank “Hound Dog” Vaughn is still on the force. When a young woman comes to Strange asking for help recovering a cheap ring that she claims has sentimental value, the case leads Strange onto Vaughn’s turf, where a local drug addict has been murdered, shot point-blank in his apartment.

Soon both men are on the trail of a ruthless killer: Red Fury, so called for his looks and the car his girlfriend drives, but a name that fits his personality all too well. Red Fury doesn’t have a retirement plan, as Vaughn points out—he doesn’t care whom he has to cross, or kill, to get what he wants. As the violence escalates and the stakes get higher, Strange and Vaughn know that the only way to catch their man is to do it their own way.

The Review

George Pelecanos has written eighteen novels set in and around Washington, D.C. He has won numerous prizes for his writing and was the man behind the HBO’s successful drama series, The Wire.

What It Was sees George Pelecanos on top form. Set in 1972, the story focuses on a tired robust cop by the name of Frank ‘Hound Dog’ Vaughn, a former cop turned Private Investigator Derek Strange, and a young reckless murderer named Red Fury.

Pelecanos weaves a ferocious array of musical references along the way to help set the mood and after the murder and robbery of junkie Bobby Odum, Hound Dog is on the case. As a former Marine, Vaughn knows and can handle the streets, and is comfortable with what life has given him, which includes secret trysts with his mistress. Their conversations are kept to a minimum because he doesn’t visit her to talk and they both get what they want, but in all of this he still loves his wife. Also on the case is Derek Strange, hired by a woman to find the ring which Odum had on him at the time of his murder.
Strange and Vaughn know each other well from Strange’s previous stint as an officer and the two have a sincere respect for each other which translates well through the period’s racial tensions. With Vaughn hunting a killer and Strange trying to locate a ring, both paths soon lead to the rampant and dangerous Red Fury.

To heat things up Pelecanos throws in a couple of heavies from out of town determined to retrieve what Red stole from their man Odum, setting us up nicely for a grand finale.

What Pelecanos does well though is to catapult the reader right into the time period. The prose is tight with visceral descriptions of the clothes, vehicles, afros and hats tilted to the side. It’s as if he was right the there and even if the language is a little coarse in places, you begin to feel it’s representative of the particular decade in which it’s been created. What It Was, a reflection of a place and time, is a stylish crime noir from the writer of The Wire.

What It Was by George Pelecanos, is published by Orion.


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