|Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos: Hard-boiled Buddies|
Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos write hard-boiled, noir mysteries set in their respective hometowns, Boston and Washington, D.C. Lehane's Anthony and Shamus Award winning series follows private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angela (Angie) Gennaro, who still live in the blue-collar Irish/Italian neighborhood where they grew up. Pelecanos' main sleuth, TV and stereo salesman Nick Stefanos, acquired his detective's license on a whim. But the real stars of Pelecanos' novels are Washington, D.C., and the unsung blue-collar heroes who transformed the city from World War II boomtown to world capital.
Crescent Blues interviewed the pair following a joint reading and signing at the Mystery Bookshop in Bethesda, Md. NOTE: If you ever want to interview George Pelecanos, wear a pair of high-top "Connies," the sneakers that he favors. Having done her homework, this reporter wore her red pair, and Pelecanos said, "Since you're wearing 'Chucks,' I'll do the interview."
Crescent Blues: You two met in Pittsburgh for a book reading and signing?
Dennis Lehane: There were only the two of us; we just met. They bussed in a group of senior citizens to the signing, and that's not, I would say, our core audience. So I think they were a little bit shocked as we read. Both of us knew it before we stood up that this was not going to be our core audience, and we could have backed away from reading the tougher stuff. We didn't, so there you go.
Crescent Blues: Did any of them come up and talk to you afterwards?
George Pelecanos: There was a Q and A afterwards. It was fun.
Dennis Lehane: It was fine. We just think we unsettled them a little bit.
Crescent Blues: So was that how you found out about each other?
George Pelecanos: Yeah, I'd probably read one of his books.
Dennis Lehane: I'd read King Suckerman in galleys.
George Pelecanos: Generally, when I know I'm going to meet somebody in a situation like that, I'll try and read their book. Usually you have to lie: "I loved it, man." But I did love it. Then you meet somebody you love as a writer, but you don't want to hang around with them. But we just hit it off.
Crescent Blues: How many of George's books have you read by now?
Dennis Lehane: I've read them all. You go to mystery book stores, and sometimes there's an author who's hot. Everybody was talking about The Big Blowdown. I bought it and didn't read it at the time. Then, just before we first signed together -- this was a total fluke -- I was in a used bookstore in Cambridge with a buddy of mine and I saw King Suckerman in galleys, just before the book was published. So I grabbed it, read it that day and then signed with him in Pittsburgh two, three weeks later. Afterwards I went back and read everything.
Dennis Lehane: Right off the bat I just loved it. One of the biggest influences on my work was Elmore Leonard's books of the Seventies, the real mean, nitty-gritty totally noir books set in Detroit in the Seventies. The opening of King Suckerman immediately made me feel like I was back in the Seventies reading a Leonard book. I loved the set-up. I loved these two guys immediately -- Cooper and Clagget. They start off with this crazy crime. Clagget kills a guy because he doesn't like the way he smiles at him. You just knew King Suckerman was true noir. People are not acting out of these grand Colombo-type plans. They just do things on impulse and affect things. I love books like that. Then the Seventies' stuff. That book has a soundtrack. You're reading it and just kind of bobbing your head.
Crescent Blues: Which book do you like the best, now that you've read them all?
Dennis Lehane: Of George's? I have my complete bias. I love The Sweet Forever far and away. My guess is that George's favorites book is The Big Blowdown, and I can see why. The Sweet Forever spoke most to me because I came of age in the Eighties. He set that book at exactly one of the most pivotal years of my life, so it was completely vivid to me. Everything -- cocaine, crack, the fear of gang violence, the treatment of the poor, corruption in government, and Lenny Bias [the University of Maryland basketball star who died from cocaine use in 1986]. And I was there. Whereas for King Suckerman I had to transpose myself to a time I remember as a 10- or 11-year-old, I was 20 years old in 1986. That was my time, everything he wrote about. I was thinking, "Damn, I wish I wrote this."
Crescent Blues: George, what was the first book you read of Dennis'?
George Pelecanos: It was his first book, A Drink Before The War. It blew me away. There's points in that book where I was, like, "This guy's got it," and it doesn't happen like that much anymore. I started reading his other books. Now I just wait for them to get published. Gone, Baby, Gone I think is a flat-out classic. That book's going to be around in a hundred years. Prayers for Rain is phenomenal, too.
Crescent Blues: What is it about the books that really blows you away?
George Pelecanos: The first is the quality of the writing, the characters and the humor, but that's not what separates him from everybody else. I think it's because the books are all about something. He's not afraid to make them about something. He's not afraid to make these characters extremely flawed, like most people are. He doesn't put them into some kind of politically correct box and packaging to aim for mass readers. It's a very honest writing, which you don't find in crime writing for the most part. That's why I keep coming back to the books. Then, of course, they deliver on the genre level as well, absolutely.
Crescent Blues: What do you think about Bubba (the arms dealer in the Patrick Kenzie/Angie Gennaro series)?
George Pelecanos: I try not to think about him.
Crescent Blues: What did you think about Bubba's turning romantic in Prayers for Rain?
Pelecanos [laughing]: There's a sensitive side of Bubba.
Dennis Lehane: Bubba gets some!
George Pelecanos: It's kind of like watching a dog lick his balls -- I don't know why.
Crescent Blues: Let me bring up a topic that everyone's talking about: violence. Noir and hardboiled mysteries are, by definition, violent. Do either of you find this genre trademark disturbing, given recent shootings like the one in Columbine, Colo.?
Dennis Lehane: I think that you have to read -- that sounds patently obvious -- but you have to read a book. My books are not written so they're necessarily the easiest, fastest books to get into. Any 16-year-old who can read through Gone, Baby, Gone and come of that thinking it'd be good to shoot somebody was disturbed in the first place. I don't want to just push away these things. I feel some sense of culpability because I'm caught up in a violent genre, certainly, but it's like I saw a comic recently saying, "Guns don't kill people. People kill people. But guns have something to do with it."
What happened yesterday in Washington, D.C., is a disgrace [the House defeated a gun control bill]. Congress pushed away the issue -- guns. What gets passed, instead? Posting the Ten Commandments in schools. Yeah, that's going to help. That's really going to help. "It has nothing to do with guns; we need the Ten Commandments in schools. Juvenile crime? Let's crack down on juveniles. Let's not figure out a way to get them help. Let's not figure out what's going wrong in their life and fix it. No, let's just crack down on them so they can be in a hole, a bigger hole."
I know that sounds like a liberal artist's way of pushing away from his own responsibility. I have to rethink, to some extent, the use of guns in my novels, and I will do that, but they're novels. It's not a film; it's not instant. Reading is not a passive environment. You have to invest yourself. Your mind has to work to read a book. So in this case, I do feel the blood is not on our hands. I do think the entertainment industry has to look at itself to some extent. [Violence] is an issue, certainly. But let's deal with issue number one first -- there's no excuse for a Tech-9 being a legal weapon.
Crescent Blues: What do you think, George?
George Pelecanos: Dennis has pretty much said it all. I would add that it's not a problem with violence in books. No, there's a problem of violence in society. I would gladly never write another book with any kind of violence in it if it wasn't reflecting what's going on out there.
Crescent Blues: Both of you write about places where violence has occurred for a long time, including violence against kids. Would you agree there was really no uproar about violence against children until violence started occurring in white, upper middle class schools?
George Pelecanos: Yes, I would.
Crescent Blues: How do you feel about that?
George Pelecanos: I have a problem with it -- not to dishonor those kids killed at Columbine. There's been three to four hundred gun deaths in the District [of Columbia] every year for the last ten years. The majority of the victims are kids, if you count people in their early 20s as well. OK, so why the uproar now?
Crescent Blues: You're talking about kids?
George Pelecanos: Right. Nobody cared up until that time, because they let it go on. If [Columbine] brings about some kind of change.... But it doesn't seem like it's going to, in light of what just went down yesterday in Congress. What more needs to happen?
Crescent Blues: How do you feel about that, Dennis?
Dennis Lehane: Yeah, I agree. Richard Pryor used to have a great line, "The white people driving through the ghetto see the black kids standing on the street smoking or shooting up, and they say, 'Oh, that's sad, what a crisis.' Then they get home and they find their own kid doing it and they go, "It's an epidemic!'" I think that's certainly true.
When I lived in Miami, one of the most dangerous cities in the country, those were crazy days. They were killing tourists left and right in Liberty City, where I taught poetry in the schools. When they finally turned into animals -- I'm not going to say anything about who created those animals -- two animals ran a German tourist over six, seven times in front of a child in the car, when they were jacking the car. This incident caused a massive outrage. What did Miami do? Did they deal with this horrendous neighborhood where it was completely hopeless, where it looked like an armed camp?
No, they came up with a "wonderful" solution…