Mystery writer George Pelecanos talks to EW. The author of 10 books finds inspiration on the mean streets of Washington
George Pelecanos
Credit: George Pelecanos Photo Illustration by Sanjay Kothari

”This place, here. You come here at night — and believe me, you don’t want to come here at night — and you see all kinds of s—. You drive by and kids pull back their coats just to show you they’re strapped. Bad stuff after dark, man. Very bad.”

There’s certainly plenty to see in broad daylight. Dilapidated public housing, dealers in puffy jackets palming items back and forth, a wino with shattered teeth; inner-city flotsam drifts by as Billy Bragg & Wilco play softly on the stereo of author George P. Pelecanos’ maroon BMW. Driving through the Washington, D.C., neighborhood that provides the setting for his latest book, Pelecanos goes dead silent for the first time in hours.

George Pelecanos loves his life. The author of 10 books — including his most recent series featuring detective Derek Strange — will tell you that flat out. He has three kids. A great wife. His year is divided evenly between writing movie scripts and crime novels. His days are spent wandering his hometown of Washington, hanging with private investigators, eavesdropping in neighborhood bars and hitting the torn, duct-taped heavy bag that hangs from his basement ceiling. He gets respect from critics and peers alike — GQ anointed him the ”coolest writer in America,” and buddy Dennis Lehane (”Mystic River”) calls him ”one of the best crime novelists alive.” Now he’s getting love from his publisher, Little, Brown and Company (owned by EW parent company AOL Time Warner), which has thrown serious muscle behind his latest thriller, ”Hell to Pay,” planning a 23-city tour and a $100,000 ad campaign.

”I don’t think there is a crime writer alive who has gotten better reviews outside the mystery section than George,” says Michael Pietsch, editor of the second Derek Strange novel, loosely based on the real-life killing of Washington-area 7-year-old Dennis K. Ashton Jr. in 1997 (the book is dedicated to Ashton). ”He’s serious now. We’re looking for best-seller lists.”

Glowing critical praise. The faith of a major international corporation. Illustrious literary friends. It’s an unlikely fate for a son of working-class Greeks who didn?t start writing until 31. A fit guy with coiled hair and a salt-and-pepper Vandyke, Pelecanos grew up in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and in Silver Spring, Md. He spent his childhood working at his dad’s lunch counter and his teens and twenties floating through a panoply of jobs. ”I sold everything: appliances; electronics…even women’s shoes on commission,” says the 45-year-old author with a laugh. ”Best job I ever had.”

At night, he wrote. Pelecanos finished his largely autobiographical first novel, ”A Firing Offense,” right before a tour of duty at the indie company Circle Films, where he masterminded the U.S. release of John Woo’s ”The Killer.” ”I sent [the manuscript] off to St. Martin’s Press in 1990. And they were the only place I sent it. What did I know?” he laughs. ”’The Writer’s Market’ manual says, ‘No simultaneous submissions.”’ A year later, the book was plucked — virtually at random — from the slush pile and Pelecanos was paid a whopping $2,500.

The rest was a slow build. Between churning out D.C. crime novels for a fan base that seemed to consist mostly of mystery-bookstore owners and fellow authors, he nurtured his obsessions. Pop music. Basketball history. Exploring the nastier side of Washington, D.C., from the ride-along seats of police cruisers and the back rows of courtrooms. Guns. The last is a deeply personal matter — Pelecanos accidentally shot a friend in the face and nearly killed him when he was 17. ”It was the kind of accident you read about every week,” he explains. ”Some kids were alone in the house and a gun was there…. I picked that gun up.” And, more than anything else, tending to his growing family: He and his wife, Emily, who used to work for a D.C. magazine, adopted three children, Nick, 11; Peter, 8; and Rosa, 5.

Hell to Pay