City Paper is not for tourists
George Pelecanos is known for filling his books with sharp details about D.C. But he drew inspiration for his latest work—a short story called “The Confidential Informant”—from Charm City, where he works 16-hour days on the HBO series The Wire. The story is part of D.C. Noir, a new Pelecanos-edited, Akashic Books–published anthology of 16 short works set in the District.
“I learned a lot in Baltimore,” says the 48-year-old Silver Spring native, adding that he was granted full access to that city’s police department for the show. There he met some informants from whom he borrowed characteristics for The Wire’s Bubbles, a drug-addled but charming snitch. Verdon, the protagonist of the Park View–set “Informant,” isn’t as magnetic as Bubbles, but he shares with the TV character a certain desperation—an essential ingredient, Pelecanos suggests, of noir fiction.
“Noir is really about the screws tightening in on you,” he says.
And he should know: Pelecanos has penned 12 dark crime novels since 1992. With those credentials, it might seem as though Pelecanos would jump at the chance to edit D.C. Noir, yet he claims he was hesitant at first, citing “horror stories” he’d heard from friends who’d been involved in similar projects. But because Pelecanos knew of Akashic head Johnny Temple, who used to play bass in Girls Against Boys, from his days knocking around in D.C.’s indie-music scene, the author says he knew “[Temple’s] heart was in the right place.”
The book’s cover photographer, D.C. native Jim Saah, also has roots in the District’s music scene: Before moving on to snap pictures for SPIN and the Washington Post (as well as the Washington City Paper), Saah took photos of early-’80s D.C. underground acts.
Imbued with countless collective years of local experience, D.C. Noir is the fifth in an Akashic series spotlighting unknown noir writers from around the country. For this installment, Pelecanos was hoping to present a picture of the city as a whole—and maybe expand outsiders’ view of the place. “[D]on’t expect the locals to get all misty-eyed over monuments [and] inauguration balls, or care about society sightings,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “What might get them emotional is the sight of someone who shares their memories.”
Among the compilation’s highlights is Kenji Jasper’s “First,” one of Pelecanos’ favorite contributions. “The thing about Kenji—besides the fact that he’s a really good writer—is that he came up in the D.C. school system,” Pelecanos says, noting that it’s heartening to see Jasper “come out of a place like that.” Other notable entries include “The Light and the Dark” by Robert Wisdom, a D.C. native who plays Maj. Bunny Colvin on The Wire. “Bob [had] never written fiction before,” says Pelecanos. “[But] I had a feeling he could.”
Wisdom’s Petworth-based story, placed in D.C. Noir’s “Streets & Alleys” section, is full of references to familiar places and reads better than what one might expect from a rookie. “I was really happy [with it],” says Pelecanos.
It’s a sentiment he extends to the book as a whole. “It’s a complete portrait of the city,” he says. —Mike Kanin