“It was a Plymouth Fury, the GT Sport, a two-door 440 V-8 with hidden headlamps and a four-barrel carb.” Jab-quick and fired by a fevered rhythm, that line from crime master George Pelecanos’s What It Was sets the tone for a novel that reads like a hot rod running red lights, weed smoke and Funkadelic pouring through the windows. The year is 1972, and DC mobster Red Fury is settling accounts. In the opening pages, he offs a junkie named Bobby Odum, then jacks him for a gold ring–a gift, Fury thinks, for his hooker sweetheart. Turns out it belongs to Maybelline Walker, an elementary-school tutor whose hips move toward the Petworth office of private detective Derek Strange “with a feline sway.” Strange taps Frank Vaughn, his ex-partner from the police department, for backup, and a cross-Anacostia River shoot-’em-up begins. Pelecanos loosely based Fury on Raymond “Cadillac” Smith, a criminal who terrorized Washington in the ’70s and became kingpin of a prison gang. This tie-in to local history gives What It Was the patina of legend. As a drinking buddy tells Strange, it is “quite a tale.”
This article appears in the March 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.
Little, Brown and Company