INTERVIEW WITH GEORGE PELECANOS

George Pelecanos’ The Man Who Came Uptown is a book partly about books. Its protagonist, Michael Hudson, has come out of jail with a love of books and a hunger to get his life straight. His goals are threatened by the man who got him out, PI Phil Orzanian, who threatens to put him back in if he doesn’t help him in his sideline of robbing pimps and drug dealers. While Michael struggles to escape the situation, we also see how he escapes his day to day through reading. We caught up to the author of our Pick Of the Month to talk about his book and books in general.

The Man Who Came Uptown Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: One of the reasons why this is going to end up as one of my favorite books of the year is that it looks at the power of books. What did you want to explore about that?

George Pelecanos: I’ve been doing reading programs and leading book club discussions in prisons and jails for many years.  I’ve seen first-hand how books can broaden minds and make people happy. Beyond that, this one was personal for me.  Without going into unseemly detail, I was pretty rudderless when I was young and I saw trouble. Then a teacher turned me on to novels.  It changed the direction of my life.

MPS: Some of my favorite moments is how Michael interacts with a certain title he’s reading. How did you approach those characters moments?

GP: The novels that Michael reads force him to look at his life, and how he leads it, differently.  Willy Vlautin’s Northline, for example, teaches him the importance of small kindnesses. It causes him to forgive someone at a crucial moment in the book.  The implication is that reading can make you a better person because it takes you into the minds of people you might otherwise never have met. “Try to understand each other” is the important Steinbeck quote in the book.  Obviously those words impact Michael Hudson.

MPS: Phil Orzanian is an interesting antagonist. He has an Elmore Leonard quality to him. While I want Michael to get out from under him, he doesn’t come off as a villain and more like a guy who has been playing with fire for too long. Has there a certain idea you had in mind when constructing him?

GP: At the end of the chapters where Ornazian and Thaddeus Ward commit crimes, their internal monologue is always about the anticipation of seeing their spouses or children.  There are few pure villains in my books or in my screen work. People do bad things but they often rationalize the reasons for their behavior. Ornazian deeply loves his wife and kids, and he also robs drug dealers and pimps.  Both sides of him exist at once.

MPS: True Grit is one of the books Michael escapes into and you’ve mentioned it in interviews as a favorite. What makes it such a great book to you?

GP: The story is fantastic, a rousing adventure.  The prose shines. The narrator is an optimist but the feelings invoked are of tragedy.  It successfully tackles the subject of the passage of time, which is the big mystery we all grapple with.  But mostly it’s the voice of Mattie Ross. Charles Portis completely inhabits her. I’ve read the book many times and it’s always a thrilling experience.

MPS: What were some of the books that had an influence on you as a writer?

GP: Many are mentioned in this book.  I continue to be an Elmore Leonard fan and marvel at what he left us.  Steinbeck, with his humanity, is still a favorite. James Salter’s Light Years left a big impression on me.  The best book I read this year was The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. It had ambition and she achieved it.  By influential, I don’t mean to claim that I can write like any of these people. But I can have aspirations. My goal, always, is to be a better writer.

MPS: I have to ask on behalf of my customers and myself if Spero Lucas will be coming back in a new book down the road?

GP: I’d like to revisit the character.  If he knocks on that door in my head, I’ll answer it.

PICK OF THE MONTH- George Pelecanos’s Man Who Came Uptown

George Pelecanos has become one of the top humanist authors when it comes to crime fiction. His ability to link the believable emotions of his characters to ours and represent his working class folks with dignity makes a true poet in the genre. His latest, The Man Who Came Uptown is a fine example of this.

The Man Who Came Uptown Cover ImageHe gives us a protagonist who can go in several directions. Michael Hudson, a small time crook, awaits his trial in jail. As a way to pass the time, he develops a a love of books with help from the librarian, Anna Kaplan. Michael’s case is thrown out, due to Phil Ornazian, a PI for his lawyer. Michael wants to work at his restaurant job, figure out a good straight life for himself, and read. Ornazian has other plans for him. The detective has a side hustle of robbing pimps and dealers and wants to put Michael to use a a getaway driver. If Michael doesn’t do as he’s told, Ornazian can put him back in jail. As Michael struggles to find a way out, he develops an awkward relationship with Anna.

Pelecanos has his characters and situations unfold in a very real yet dramatic way. He avoids any of the standard ways this story would move, searching for the quieter moments in tale and unearthing them like precious jewels. He explores honest, human connections, and feelings like Michael’s pride in finishing a day’s work or Orzanian’s time with his wife. We see both the sinner and saint in his players, making the lives precious during the violent moments and tragic when it is snuffed out. Even those moments are played down, yet they are no less direct and brutal. It is simply part of the dance these people have found themselves in.

Some of the most moving parts in the book are when Michael reads. Pelecanos captures how reading develops a point of view as he interacts with Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling, an Elmore Leonard western, and others. He shows the quiet beauty of escape the act performs. You also get a lot of great book suggestions.

The Man Who Came Uptown has both grit and heart. Its characters struggle for a better life as they see it, some with misguided tactics. Many of their dreams aren’t lofty, yet are worthy. Pelecanos finds the value in all these people, mainly through their most intimate moments.

I Could Fit Five Bodies in the Trunk of My Sedan: MysteryPeople Q&A with Patrick Millikin

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

The Highway Kind is a collection of short crime fiction, dealing with cars, driving, and the road. It features crime and general fiction and even a singer/songwriter. Authors include the likes of Joe Lansdale, Ace Atkins, and Michael Connelly. We talked to to the editor Patrick Millikan about cars and crime.

MysteryPeople Scott: How did the idea of The Highway Kind come about?

Patrick Millikan: My original thought was that it would be cool to have an anthology of crime stories in which each author chose a particular car and wrote a story about it. The cars would be prominently featured. I was surprised that there hadn’t been (at least to my knowledge) a collection like it. Over time the idea morphed into something, at least in my opinion, much more interesting. As I mention in the preface, when I commissioned the stories I left the guidelines pretty open – the pieces would simply be about “cars, driving and the road.” As the stories started to come in I was surprised and intrigued by how personal, almost confessional, many of them were.

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Political Thrillers to Take to the Polls

Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

As we all gear up for Super Tuesday, and curse ourselves for missing out on early voting, here are some recommended reads for those hours you’ll spend in line, or for that post-election plane ride to Anywhere Else. Some of the following volumes inspire us to embrace our duties as citizens, while others feed on the paranoia suffusing our souls.

9780062259349Pleasantville by Attica Locke

Set during a hotly contested election in Houston, Pleasantville uses political competition as a perfect venue to explore the city’s changing neighborhoods and delve into the effect of gentrification on black voting power. A murder lands a politician’s nephew in jail who swears he’s innocent, and it’s up to civil rights lawyer Jay Porter to find out why the young man is being framed.

You can find copies of Pleasantville on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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Bouchercon Recap: Part 1

– Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

book-haul-scott

New Orleans is a city known for sin, drinking, and corruption; a perfect place for the 2016 Bouchercon where hundreds of crime novelists, publishers, and fans meet. I’ve been going solo to these things, but this time I was joined by my fellow MysteryPeople, newly named Director Of Suspense Molly Odintz and and MysteryPeople Blogger Meike Alana to divide and and conquer. That said, I was still exhausted after I was done.

Even the panels were more rollicking than usual. When Moderator Laura Lippman spoke on behalf of Megan Abbott on their “Real Housewives” discussion, panelist Greg Herren called up Megan to see if Laura was right. for the record, she was. On a panel on vigilante justice in crime fiction Stuart Neville questioned the authors who talked about the need for a vigilante hero, by saying it is a fascist trope. A panel on the use of violence got interesting when Taylor Stevens, author of The Informationist, talked about the need for it in her writings. “Our characters are gladiators in the arena and our readers want to see them get bloodied.”

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Down and Dirty in the Country: A Quick Look at Rural Noir

Noir is a genre usually identified with the city. Concrete and steel cut off our anti-hero, throwing an endless shadow over him or her. At the same time, however, authors were also looking at the darkness, isolation, and evil in small towns or farms. When we weren’t looking, the sub-sub-genre of rural noir took over like kudzu.

The roots of rural noir come from the Southern Gothic authors. One could argue that William Faulkner was an early practitioner. As I Lay Dying uses many noir tropes with a stylized point of view, family secrets, dark humor, and a bleak look at class. Flannery O’Connor is another author whose influence shows itself in the works of current rural noir authors. Her use of religion and perspective of evil can be seen in the work of Jake Hinkson in such modern classics as Hell On Church Street

“Noir is a genre usually identified with the city…at the same time, however, authors were also looking at the darkness, isolation, and evil in small towns or farms.”

One of the first great examples of rural noir is James Ross’ They Don’t Dance Much. Using Southern speech, much like Chandler used the Southern California dialect, Ross tells the story of jack McDonald, a failed farmer who ends up running a road house owned by schemer Smut Mulligan, who later pulls Jack into a robbery and murder. A power play ends up between the two involving Lola, the wife of the town proprietor Smut is having an affair with. It took the James M. Cain noir structure and themes and put a country spin on it.

Jim Thompson wrote many tales from the city, but some of his best dealt with shady small town lawmen. The Killer Inside Me, still one of the most chilling books ever written, features West Texas deputy and psychopath, Lou Ford. Lou pretends to be a dim hick, who mainly tortures the town citizens, many with their own dark secrets and agendas, by talking in cliches and platitudes. When he develops a brutal relationship with a prostitute, he and the town both violently spiral downward.

“…the violence almost becomes redemptive in this black satire on small town culture and bigotry…”

Thompson took the bad lawmen to new heights in the Sixties with Pop. 1280. MysteryPeople screens Coup de Torchon, French director Bertrand Tavernier’s Algerian-set film version of the Pop. 1280, on Sunday, July 7, as part of our Double Feature Film Series. Screenings will be followed by a discussion of the book and film, and all screenings are free and open to the public. Nick Correy is the lazy, philandering sheriff of a small Southern town during the Nineteen-Teens. When he’s challenged in an election and kills to stay in the lead, we learn how smart and dangerous he is. What is odd is how Nick keeps his genial tone and how the violence almost becomes redemptive in this black satire on small town culture and bigotry. It is interesting to note that Thompson’s father was an Oklahoma sheriff who was caught embezzling when the writer was young.

The author who truly opened the door for rural noir was Daniel Woodrell. Originally writing about Rene Shade, a police detective in a corrupt Louisiana parish, in his Bayou Trilogy, he later moved his settings to the Ozarks, were he was born and raised, in such novels as Winter’s Bone (screened last year as part of our Noir Double Feature Film Series) Woodrell’s novels are somewhat the country cousins to George Pelecanos’ D.C. novels, including the recently released and critically acclaimed The Martini Shot: A Novella and StoriesWoodrell and Pelecanos both create character-driven stories, where criminals are motivated by extreme poverty and drugs (crack for Pelecanos, meth for Woodrell) plague an entire community. Woodrell dives into his stories on a personal level with a poetic prose style. The beginning paragraph of Tomato Red, with its page-long, run-on sentence, is work of great humor and craft. He delves into the lives of the working class and the poor from his area, inspiring a wave of other writers to use their rural background in their noir.

“…rural noir has a strong lineage, an established canon, and the manifest destiny to travel down every back road and tell its story…”

Several of these writers inspired by Woodrell have already established themselves in the rural noir cannon. Frank Bill built a reputation through his short stories dealing with hard men and harder women pushed to the brink of violence and beyond, exemplified in the collection Crimes In Southern Indiana. His debut novel, Donnybrook, is about several characters and the trail of blood they leave behind as they head to a bare knuckle fight. Donnybrook shows how meth in the Midwest has fused the drug and culture together. Another great take on the subject is Matthew McBride’s relentless A Swollen Red Sun. McBride sets a Missouri county aflame when a deputy takes seventy-two thousand dollars from a meth dealer’s trailer in a moment of weakness. The book is reminiscent of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest in its look at how a corrupt society destroys itself. Benjamin Whitmer’s anti-heroes get ping-ponged from their country homes to the city, trapped by their violent compulsions, developed of necessity but leaving his characters isolated and alone. Both of his books, Pike and Cry Father, are emotional gut punches.

the genre of rural noir is expanding rapidly, and it has room to do it. Both David Joy and Jamie Kornegay have shown new back roads with their novels Where All Light Tends To Go and Soil. Jamie Kornegay joins us Monday, May 4, for Noir at the Bar at Opal Divine’s. Frank Wheeler, Jr.’s debut, The Good Life, set in rural Nebraska, hopefully ushers in a long career writing great rural noir set in Midwestern wastelands. We also have yet to see many female writers and authors of color embrace the sub-genre. As rural noir grows in self-confidence and acclaim, I hope to see many more diverse voices in the genre, but already, rural noir has a strong lineagean established canon, and the manifest destiny to travel down every back road and tell its story. Like Hank William’s country boy, the genre can survive, and even thrive.

THE DOUBLE: Worth the Wait

George Pelecanos’ The Cut introduced readers to a new character and a new phase in his writing. The book, which features Spero Lucas, an Iraq war vet who does leg work for a D.C. lawyer and recovers stolen items for forty percent of their value, wedded the fast paced PI novels of his early career with the looser, more socially aware novels that came later. It worked brilliantly, making the two year wait for its follow up, The Double, feel like an eternity. Pelecanos proves it was worth it.

In classic private eye tradition, Spero has two jobs in The Double. The first is to help his law firm defend a man up on murder charges. The case gives us a cold look at the justice system. His off-the-books work is to retrieve a painting taken from a woman by her lover. The thief, Billy King, proves to be more dangerous than your average gigolo con man. It’s in dealing with Billy and his crew where we see Spero in his bad ass glory.

Pelecanos has taken the hero novel associated with the likes of John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee and has both stripped it down and raised it up. He’s brought the genre down to a simpler, grittier street level. By doing so he gives us a greater feeling of realism and more depth to his characters and the issues raised, particularly the subject of returning veterans.

Like McDonald did with McGee, Pelecanos allows his hero to breath instead of just hustling him through one scrape after another. we get to know his adopted mother and school teacher brother. A romantic subplot involving a married woman explores another side of Spero, yet one completely important to who he is as well as who he’s becoming. We get a man trying to find his place, learn his dangerous trade, and develop a code to go along with it.

The Double is a perfect follow up to The Cut. It gives us plenty of tough guy action, while also giving us a believable look at what makes that guy tough. Pelecanos is giving us a fully formed hero on an exciting journey that is more complex than it seems. I can’t wait for Spero’s next step. Let’s hope it takes less than two years.

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Copies of The Double are available on the shelves at BookPeople and via bookpeople.com

I Can’t Believe I Hadn’t Read This: THE CUT by George Pelecanos

~Post by Chris Mattix

Welcome to a new column! Here at MysteryPeople we are always trying to stay as current as possible in order to bring you, dear reader, the best reads crime fiction has to offer. While we are constantly nose-deep in new mysteries, we sometimes miss a few books. The goal of this new column to is highlight books that somehow fell through the cracks. To inaugurate this lovely little column I would like to discuss a book that I should have read two years ago, The Cut by George Pelecanos.

The Cut is the beginning of a new series for Pelecanos that centers around Spero Lucas, a former soldier who now works in the recovery business for a D.C. lawyer. If you have read any Pelecanos in the past then you know how well he constructs his characters, and Spero Lucas is easily his greatest creation. Lucas is a very layered character who walks a fine line between white-hat-wearing righteousness and opportunistic amorality. He knows the difference between right and wrong, but understands that sometimes black and white bleed together.

In The Cut Lucas takes a job from an imprisoned weed dealer. His task is to recover the dealer’s stolen contraband and return it. It sounds like a simple job at first, but Lucas soon realizes that things are not what they seem, and his digging takes him deep into the nest of Ricardo Holley, a deviant former cop with a penchant for drugs, booze, women, and guns.

The Cut is everything I look for in a great crime novel. It’s fast-paced, violent, stylistically unique, and never boring. As a huge fan of HBO’s The Wire (for which Pelecanos was a producer and writer) I can’t believe I didn’t pick this book up sooner. Pelecanos’ writing style keeps your eyes locked to the page, even when very little is happening by way of plot development. It’s the kind of sincere and memorable storytelling that lodges itself into your brain. I finished The Cut three days ago and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

In my opinion, The Cut is a crime novel that should be required reading. It elevates the genre while staying true to its roots, and it peppers the pages with powerful insight and social commentary. If you are like me and slept on this gem, it is time for reparations. Get up. No, seriously get up. Get in your car, drive to BookPeople and buy this book. I guarantee that after five pages you too will say “I can’t believe I haven’t read this!”

New Pelecanos Novel Available Today

The latest novel by bestselling author (and the master of effortless cool) George Pelecanos is on sale today. What It Was is a paperback original, which means no waiting through the hardcover cycle to get the softer (and cheaper – only $9.99!) edition.

Pelecanos is the guest blogger today over at Mulholland Books, where he shares some of his favorite movies from the book’s era, the 1970’s, and talks about the book in a few videos.

Three Books to Read Right Now

The Dispatcher by Ryan David Jahn

A police dispatcher in a small Texas town gets a call from his daughter who was presumed dead seven years ago. Jahn depicts the gritty and grizzly race across the country and against time with strong characterization and  a view of the American Southwest through a dirty windshield.

What It Was by George Pelecanos

Pelecanos returns with Derek Strange in this trade paperback original, looking back at Strange’s early days as a PI. Both Pelecanos and Derek Strange are the epitome of cool. (This one’s actually on sale January 23, so you can read it SOON, if not right now.)

The Damage Done by Hilary Davidson

The winner of several mystery awards for best debut novel, this thriller is now out in paperback. When Lily Moore returns to New York to deal with the death of her sister, she finds someone else’s body in the morgue. Lily searches for the truth from the city’s penthouses to back alleys  dealing with few she can trust in this thriller that heralded a truly unique voice to the genre. Hilary will be here February 18th to sign and discuss her wonderful follow up, The Next One To Fall.