As one of America’s great crime authors and a chief scriptwriter on The Wire and Treme, George Pelecanos is at home on the wrong side of the tracks
George Pelecanos novels come with the same Stephen King quote emblazoned on their covers year after year: “Perhaps the greatest living crime writer”. Tease Pelecanos about this and he will assert, in his unhurried Southern-tinged growl, “He said, ‘perhaps’.” There is no doubt, however, that the Washington DC-born author is one of the most able chroniclers of urban America. This we know not only from his 19 novels, but also from his work as a writer, producer and story editor on The Wire.
Despite our current preoccupation with Breaking Bad, The Wire remains one of the best shows ever to be seen on television. Like an epic novel brought to the small screen, it wasn’t simply a cop show nor was it even really about the drugs war. Rather it was about the slow, painful decay of urban America as seen through the microcosm of an impoverished inner-city neighbourhood in Baltimore.
Creator David Simon, a former reporter on The Baltimore Sun, chose novelists and journalists rather than television writers to bring to life the world of drug dealers, junkies, cops and politicians: alongside Pelecanos, the showrunner called in Clockers writer Richard Price and Mystic River’s Dennis Lehane.
For Pelecanos, the experience of working on The Wire was akin to attending a writing school as a mature student: “When you’re writing a TV show, people sit around in a room and critique what you’re doing.” Was this hard to take at the start? Pelecanos laughs down the phone from his hotel room in Austin, Texas, where he’s mid-way through a national book tour. “Yeah. Sure. I’m vain like everyone else. I always think I’m the best writer in the room. And these guys tell you that you’re not. It’s jarring to be rewritten at first because nobody rewrites my novels except me.”
Pelecanos pretty quickly decided to use the criticism as motivation. “When I started on The Wire, David Simon was rewriting 70 per cent of my scripts. By the end of that show, most of what you see on the screen was written by me.”
Simon was certainly impressed enough to take Pelecanos with him to work as an executive producer and writer on HBO’s Treme, set in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. “Oh man, I fell hard for that city,” he explains.
“It was the best experience of my life. I needed something like that to happen to me. I’d been in DC my whole life and was convinced there was no other place I could live. I might buy a place in New Orleans and spend the winters there. It’s such an extraordinary place; you could talk to strangers all day and just extend your mind.”
Before he can get back to the Deep South, though, Pelecanos faces the prospect of three years in New York — a revelation that, it transpires, will have fans of The Wire salivating. “This summer, I wrote a pilot with David Simon for HBO set in [New York’s] Times Square in the Seventies, which we’re waiting to be green lit,” he says. “If it happens then we’ll have to build Times Square in the Bronx or Harlem. It could be pretty fun. There’s a lot of material, man. We’ve got a really good source.”
For now, however, there’s The Double to enjoy. It’s the second book about Spero Lucas, an Iraq war veteran- turned-legal investigator in Washington. Pelecanos’s prose has become more economical since he started writing for television, his storytelling more urgent. Always adept at writing sex, he has really gone for it in The Double. “I deliberately wanted to write about a young guy to re-energise myself,” he explains. “To give him a healthy sexual appetite and to unleash him on the world. I think the novel needs to be real graphic. You need to understand why Spero loves women so much and how it gets him into trouble. I want to know how the characters make love, how they relate to each other. I try to learn from writers like James Salter, who does a really good job with erotic passages in his books.”
Pelecanos, now 56, admits that he has the exact same model of Jeep as Lucas, the same bike, the same kayak. He insists, however, that he’s not having a belated mid-life crisis via his protagonist; it’s just easier to research the books if he is getting around in the same way. As his novels self-consciously provide an oral history of Washington DC in the late 20th and early 21st century, so they offer an accurate map of the city. In the first Lucas book, The Cut, Pelecanos even scoped a house that Lucas breaks into to make sure it would be possible.
The author has one more thing to say. “I’m about to sell Spero Lucas to television. In other words, someone is financing me to write it and then we’ll take it around and see who wants to buy it. I don’t want to be that guy writing in the room by myself any more. As long as I can do both television and novels, I’ll be just fine.”