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The Rough and the Real

Before he writes, novelist George Pelecanos does his homework


Not long into George Pelecanos' new crime novel, Soul Circus, protagonist Derek Strange -- black, middle fifties, veteran private detective -- and his partner, Terry Quinn -- white, early thirties, new to the business -- cruise the streets of Washington, D.C., in Strange's Chevy in search of a key witness in a case they're working. As they proceed, they argue good-naturedly about a specific lyric to a song that pours from the car's cassette deck:

"There it is, man," said Strange. "He said, 'Hug her.'"

"He said, 'Fuck her,' Dad."

"See, you're focusing on the wrong thing, Terry. What you ought to be doing, on a beautiful day like this, is groovin' to the song. This is the Spinners' debut on Atlantic. Some people call this the most beautiful Philly-soul album ever recorded."

"Yeah, I know. Produced by Taco Bell."

"Thom Belle."

"What about those guys Procter and Gamble you're always goin' on about?"

"Gamble and Huff. Point is, this is pretty nice, isn't it?"

The exchange typifies the way in which Pelecanos winkingly peppers his prose with savvy pop-culture references. In Soul Circus, the third and final entry in Pelecanos' Strange/Quinn trilogy and eleventh crime novel overall, the author name-checks everyone from Missy Elliott to Ennio Morricone to B.T. Express to the film Rio Bravo, including a wry continuing riff on the actor Bo Svenson and the later Walking Tall movies ("The ones that sucked," as Quinn puts it). Dropped like trail-marking breadcrumbs, the signifiers never come across as self-conscious or gratuitous but instead serve to illuminate the characters and story.

"You can't escape it," Pelecanos, 46, explains by phone from his home in Silver Spring, Maryland, a hair's breadth over the D.C. line. "Our whole psyche is saturated with popular culture."

Growing up in the Washington area, he inhaled film -- watching Westerns with his father and grandfather, then as a teen graduating to blaxploitation and kung-fu movies -- and music, listening to the radio while he worked at his dad's lunch counter. "Music kicks in when your hormones kick in," Pelecanos notes. "That's when I got really hopped up on music, specifically funk and soul from the '70s, which, in my opinion, is the most glorious period of American popular music."

Between Soul Circus' references to movies and songs, Pelecanos authentically chronicles D.C.'s rampant and violent black drug/gang subculture, whose dynamics he absorbed through diligent research. "You have to talk to people," he asserts, "and not be afraid, walk into a bar and inject yourself into the conversation. Once people know that you're not some kind of cop or bill collector, they want to talk."

That kind of personal interaction also has given him a deft ear for dialogue: "The mistake that white writers make when they try to do something like this is, they say, 'All right, I've got a black character -- he's gonna talk like this.' That's the wrong way to approach it. The thing that I try to do is give everybody a distinct voice. If you're in a room or on a bus with twenty black people and close your eyes and listen, they all sound different. It's about giving people respect."

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