For George Pelecanos, "novelist" is just the latest entry in a résumé that also includes stints as a shoe salesman, cook, dishwasher, bartender and construction worker. Sort of a literary one-man Village People, the acclaimed writer of hard-boiled mysteries did not pen his first book until the age of 31. But he says he wasn't consciously gathering material during his varied early careers. "I liked those jobs," he says. "But I was just working to pay the bills and get by."
Today, Pelecanos can concentrate on writing. His tenth novel, Hell to Pay, is the second (after Right as Rain) to feature the duo of private investigator Derek Strange and ex-cop Terry Quinn. "They weren't done in my mind, and that's why you should keep writing any series," he says. "There has got to be both life and change in your characters." Like most of his books, Hell to Pay is set in his hometown of Washington, D.C., and populated with characters even less savory than those roaming the real Capitol grounds.
But Pelecanos stands apart from many contemporaries who crank out novel after novel based on a reliable formula. In addition to creating numerous protagonists who often appear in each other's novels, he writes stand-alones and prequels, creating a universe rather than a series. "I want to stay engaged as a writer and go somewhere that I haven't been before," Pelecanos says.
One characteristic that many of his creations do share is their encyclopedic knowledge of music, movies and cars. If a song is playing in the background in one of his scenes, someone is bound to comment on who performed it, what record it came out on, the year and the merits of the backing vocals or sax solo. Perhaps that's because one of his idols is crime novelist Elmore Leonard, whose characters were musing on the merits of bad '70s movies long before Pulp Fiction.
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"Elmore Leonard he's my model!" Pelecanos laughs. "That's who I want to be when I grow up."