Don’t be afraid of the raised lettering on the book jacket; a well-written crime-fiction novel deserves to be treated as high art. MAGNET’s Andrew Earles surveys the modern landscape of hard-boiled detective stories and tales of noir-colored underworlds.
A Firing Offense / Nick’s Trip / Down By The River Where The Dead Men Go
Somewhere between rare and cliché, there’s a particular life change that produces good crime fiction: A person follows a career path other than “published novelist” (or even “published writer”) and begins to read crime fiction. It goes from “regular interest” to “borderline Asperger’s syndrome” as this individual invades every nook and cranny with curiosity until a large amount of bad and good writing is absorbed. It’s heavy with the bad; there’s more garbage than gold in every genre of every artistic medium, yet some of the garbage turns out to be impossibly hard to put down. At some point, he says of the bad, “I can do a lot better than this.” And that’s what he ends up doing.
OK, perhaps I was projecting a little bit. Take out the implication of drooling insanity, and these are the basic building blocks of George Pelecanos’ drive to write his first novel, 1992’s A Firing Offense, in his early 30s. The oft-told story of A Firing Offense’s fortuitous publication goes like this: The book was written longhand in a spiral notebook, then picked at random from a slush pile, the final resting place for most agent-less manuscripts. According to interviews with Pelecanos, most hope had been lost when the call from the publisher came.
A Firing Offense will resonate with many MAGNET readers and is highly recommended to those who spent (or are spending) their 20s and 30s going to shows, listening to records, getting very drunk and justifying bad choices with the ever-poignant “search for direction.” Thirty-year-old Nick Stefanos goes to see bands play, begrudgingly toils in the corporate office of Nutty Nathan’s (a pre-big-box, independently owned chain of home electronics stores), has a drink or several while the sun is still out and sleepwalks through a relationship poisoned by routine. When an elderly man, Mr. Pence, asks for help in locating his missing 19-year-old grandson Jimmy, Stefanos complies with aggressive apathy and, at first, a residual, punk-ass disrespect for the septuagenarian. His motives go from selfish (the venerable coupon for a free-yet-fleeting notion of self-redemption) to soft as he sees himself in the 19-year-old, who is quite possibly doomed from the get-go.
Stefanos is big-hearted at his core, and he has discriminating taste and a raw wit coupled with some self-taught intellect. All of which is overshadowed by what he’s really good at: being a fuck-up. For example, one of the old man’s selling points is the similarity between Nick and Jimmy, namely that both were orphaned by their real parents and raised by a grandparent. A second of pensive recollection switches over to a harsh truth about Stefanos’ flawed personality:
“My grandfather died last April,” I said, though I was no longer talking to Pence. The moment his life ended I was doing lines off the bar in an after-hours club on upper Wisconsin Avenue.
In all three books, Stefanos lives in that scary netherworld between youthful revelry and frazzled, wake-up-in-the-yard, life-ruining, middle-aged alcoholism. The scarier end of this spectrum follows Stefanos around in 1993’s Nick’s Trip and becomes a reality in 1995’s dismal Down By The River.
The reader doesn’t “catch up” with Stefanos in Nick’s Trip, because aside from his effortless acquisition of an official P.I.’s license, job as a bartender in a cop dive and a lot of acute loner behavior (reading in the library for days on end), there’s nothing to catch up on. And guess what? Pelecanos tops A Firing Offense by returning to same plot device: a missing person! This time, however, it hits closer to home. Where A Firing Offense gradually shuffles toward ugliness on a backbone of shit-talking, laziness and Stefanos’ cynical slice-and-dice descriptions of every person he comes in contact with, Nick’s Trip is 10 times as tense, claustrophobic and intimate.
In Down By The River, Stefanos has shed the bulk of his likeable qualities; he’s drunk, dangerous and often delusional, living not so much at rock bottom but in some new, ultra-bleak corner of rock bottom. Be warned that A Firing Offense and Nick’s Trip read like Fletch compared to the James Crumley-esque morbidity and depravity of Down By The River.
Tomorrow’s installment: Pelecanos’ Derek Strange/Terry Quinn series.
On Monday, Pelecanos made MAGNET a mix tape; check it out here.
In 2001, Pelecanos interviewed ex-Dream Syndicate frontman Steve Wynn for us; read it here. They got along so well that four years later, they wrote a song together (“Cindy It Was Always You,” from Wynn’s…tick…tick…tick) and also performed once in a live setting, with Wynn providing instrumental backing to Pelecanos reading from 2006’s The Night Gardener. (Download “The Night Gardener”)