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George Pelecanos’ fifth novel, The Big Blowdown, comes with flashy blurbs from Harlan Ellison and Barry Gifford, and a large hardcover format to distinguish it from run-of-the-mill mysteries. But Pelecanos’ gritty gangster tale could just as easily be a dime paperback, crammed in somebody’s back pocket on the bus.
Pelecanos writes in the hard-boiled tradition of Jim Thompson. His stories have a brutal frankness and a sense of inexorable doom, and are always set in his native Washington, D.C. Blowdown follows Pete Karras, the son of Greek immigrants, from 1933 to 1949, as he falls in with, and out with, the small-time crime scene on his way to violent redemption. Karras (like Pelecanos, who gave up his car some years ago) is an avid walker, and in between the grisly action he leads the reader along the sidewalks of a vibrant downtown, past landmarks vanished and extant.
Even at a distance of 50 years, Pelecanos’ near fetish for the details and brand names of District life can sometimes be numbing. The author spent three months in the Washingtoniana room of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library researching the period. “It was mainly me and bums. Guys taking toilet baths back there,” he says. Yet despite MLK’s aura of urban decay, he praises this untapped resource. “If you’re interested at all in Washington, it’s all in there,” he says. “You can learn a lot just from pulling the ads from the Washington Post and the Evening Star. You find out not only what people were wearing but what they were paying for it, what they were drinking in the bars. It’s all there, man.”
Much of Pelecanos’ research concerned D.C.’s largely overlooked Greek population, of which he is a proud member. “I was lucky enough,” Pelecanos says, “that my family is still around. My mom and dad grew up in the city. My grandmother is 92 years old, and she’s sharp.” Pelecanos taped extensive oral histories with family members and others they recommended, then put their memories together with “a lifetime of just listening to stories growing up.”
“I was with my grandmother…on Mother’s Day—and the book’s dedicated to her and my grandfather,” Pelecanos says. “So it’s a nice thing for my family.”—Dave Nuttycombe