As writers of hard-boiled crime fiction go, suburban dad George P. Pelecanos is a hard sell. That makes his talent even more scary



WASHINGTON -- The coolest writer in America is not particularly cool at this moment. No one is. It is summer in Washington, and the air conditioning comes in two strengths, arctic and might-as-well-be-broken. Here, in a Mexican restaurant on the edge of Georgetown, it's "Body Heat" steamy, and with no hope of Kathleen Turner's showing up to improve the scenery.

Not that George P. Pelecanos is complaining. He never complains. Nor does he curse or snort cocaine or throw back shots of Jaegermeister while boasting of his next big score, as so many of his characters do. If this guy had a theme song, it would be "Que sera, sera," as sung by Curtis Mayfield. He's one happy camper.

How can we reconcile this affable, easy-going man with the seven raw, violent novels that have made him a cult darling? Or with the guy who wrote that scene with the ice cubes (don't ask) in the newest one, "The Sweet Forever" (Little, Brown, $23.95). Look, we're not so naive that we expect a writer to be like his characters, but where's the darkness, where's the angst? We have come here expecting hard-boiled. This guy is barely poached.

Suspicion dawns that the real Pelecanos has sent this soft-spoken suburban dad as a stand-in. The author is pretty busy, after all, what with the day job as a producing partner at Circle Films, "The Sweet Forever" to promote, another novel to write, a screenplay in progress. And, if British GQ had just dubbed you the coolest writer in America, if Publisher's Weekly had called you Washington's Zola, wouldn't you have better things to do than meet with some reporter from the provinces?

But the real tip-off is the unstudied nonchalance about his career. Here's a guy whose publisher is betting on him to break out as a best seller, whose diehard fans hoard his early work as if they were Internet stocks. Miramax bought his sixth book, "King Suckerman," for rap star Sean "Puffy" Combs, and paid him enough to write the screenplay that the day job is pretty much optional. He gives every indication of not giving a damn.

"I feel like I'm hitting the audience I'm supposed to be hitting," he says, when asked if he's frustrated by not having a larger readership. "I'm not really for mass consumption."

Uh-huh. No way. Writers do not talk like this. Someone with Pelecanos' famed ear for dialogue would know that.

But the deal-breaker comes when "Pelecanos" says: "You know how some people say they if they couldn't write, they couldn't live? I don't get that. If I couldn't write, I'd go back to selling shoes. I have three kids to support."

Look, buddy, we're going to need to see some I.D.

The genuine article

A check with the Motor Vehicles Administration later confirms that George Peter Pelecanos is 41 as of this past February, 5-feet-9 and 165 pounds. So this is him, after all. Besides, he knows an awful lot about Washington, and what it was like to grow up here in the 1960s and '70s, part of a close-knit Greek family.

He hasn't strayed far from his roots, that's for sure. He was born in Columbia Hospital for Women, a block away from his current office at Circle Films. He grew up in Montgomery County, and he's raising his own family there, in a Silver Spring bungalow so close to the district line that he swears he could throw a rock across it.

As a kid, he took the bus into the city to help at his father's lunch counter downtown. He studied people's faces and wondered about their lives. He saw the changes that began in '68, with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the riots that followed. People on the bus began dressing differently, wearing different clothes, different hair styles. He wanted to know everyone's story -- where they were going, where they had been, how they had changed. He was becoming a writer, he just didn't know it.

At the University of Maryland, College Park, he took Charles Misch's course in hard-boiled literature "as a goof." The goof turned serious from the very first book, Raymond Chandler's "The Lady in the Lake." For the next 10 years, he gulped down all the standards of the genre at the rate of two to three a week. Not only the books by the Maryland boys, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain, but also John D. McDonald and Ross McDonald.

From age 16 on, he was a salesman. Shoes all though college, stereos, electronics, appliances at Luskin's. Before he knew it, he was 30, married, general manager of a major appliance chain, making more money than he ever dreamed. His own company was the logical next step. Pelecanos saw his future -- and it scared him to death.

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