RARA-AVIS: River, 19th century Washington, etc.

From: George Pelecanos ( shoedog1@erols.com)
Date: 19 Dec 2001

Thanks for the interest in Nick Stefanos. DOWN BY THE RIVER WHERE THE DEAD MEN GO (1995) was written in a fever after my return from Brazil in the winter of 1993/94. In Brazil I saw children eating out of trashcans, children so weak from hunger that they were passed out in the middle of the street, and children no older than ten or eleven with murder in their eyes. My world was rocked. I came back home and wrote a very dark book.

In THE BIG BLOWDOWN (1996), which is set in the years between 1933 and 1959, Stefanos makes an appearance as a toddler at the conclusion of the novel. I began to work him forward into the succeeding novels (two, three and four in the D.C. Quartet) with cameos as a teenager in KING SUCKERMAN (1997, set in 1976) and as a young man in THE SWEET FOREVER (1998, set in 1986). By the time of the contemporary SHAME THE DEVIL (1999) he comes back into the narrative as a major character. The book deals with physical, mental, and spiritual recovery in a violent world, so I felt it was right that I pick him up. Stefanos is still drinking, but there is hope--because there's always hope. I recently completed a manuscript called SOUL CIRCUS (to be published in 2003), the third book in the Strange/Quinn series, in which Nick Stefanos returns for a supporting but pivotal role. It is indeed hard to keep a good man down.

Graham asks about the frivolous tone of crime novel reviews, and if it makes us reach for the bottle or the gun. The truth is, there's not a whole lot a writer can do about it. RIGHT AS RAIN was a case in point; I certainly can't complain about the reviews, but I found it odd that relatively few of them discussed the book's obvious subject, our country's racial divide. Apparently, in the minds of America's literary gatekeepers, a crime novel can't be "about" anything other than it's own ability to deliver the genre goods. In the recent NY Times Best of 2001 list, THE COLD SIX THOUSAND was mentioned under Fiction, and MYSTIC RIVER was classified as a Mystery. Does anyone who has read the two books believe that Ellroy's novel was more
"serious" or "literary" than Lehane's? MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN (a damn good book) was, to my knowledge, the first crime novel to win the National Book Award. Lethem was blessed by the establishment early in his career as a literary writer (I say this with no bitterness; Lethem's a great writer and a friend). Given his pedigree, is MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN a "better" or more important book than, say, THE LAST GOOD KISS? The point is, James Crumley
(substitute Charles Willeford or any other extraordinary crime novelist of your choice here) was tagged as a mystery writer early on, and subsequently had no chance to be considered for that kind of award. It's a shame, and also frustrating, because few novels are as powerful and well-written (read: literary) as THE LAST GOOD KISS. But it's also irrelevant. When the smoke clears, the books and not the genre will be judged.

19th Century Washington: there's an interesting non-fiction book called REVEILLE IN WASHINGTON, 1860-1865, by Margaret Leech (originally published in 1941) which goes into fantastic detail about Civil War-era D.C.

George Pelecanos

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