Read by J.D. Jackson
Length: 6 Hrs 45 Min
Quick Thoughts: Pelecanos fans will rejoice in a new Derek Strange tale and he certainly does his fans justice. What is Was is the hip thrilling story that his fans have come to expect, full of authentic, almost poetic dialogue, and human characters which will leave the listener wanting more.
One of the things I really struggle with, as a reader, is authenticity versus how I wish things would be. I always love authors who can create really authentic characters. Yet, one of the things about authentic characters is that they do, say and think authentic things, and many of these things annoy the batshit out of me. One of the things that has come up in a few of George Pelecanos’ novels that drives me crazy is his characters penchants for rationalization of their infidelity. There is this concept among many man that, yes, cheating is wrong, but heck, men are men and it’s what they do, and for some reason, this justifies the action. Men, who believe they are the masters of all, find comfort in the fact that they are willing slaves to their base needs. I think a combination of growing up religious, and having been around a lot of self proclaimed strong Christian men who will rant about how homosexuality is an abomination but revel in their infidelity makes me especially sensitive to this issue. So, yeah, when Derek Strange spends time not just attempting to rationalize his infidelity, but his fathers during What it Was, I was momentarily annoyed. Yet, annoyance with the character should not instantly translate to annoyance with the author. In fact, after my initial reaction has time to fade, it reminds me why I love Pelecanos. Because, this rationalization fits Derek Strange. Whether right or not, Pelecanos captures how this character would feel. It’s this authenticity of thought that goes hand in hand with Pelecanos’ skill at creating dead on dialogue that makes him one of my favorite writers.
What It Was takes place a few years after the events of Hard Revolution. Derek Strange has left the police force after the 1968 DC riots, and has opened his own one-man Private Investigation firm, Strange Investigations. A woman comes to his office asking Strange to attempt to recover a ring she lost. It seems the ring was the possession of a young man who was brutally murdered, a murder being investigated by his former partner Frank Vaughn. Strange and Vaughn’s investigations lead them to a suspect, street named Red Fury, who is on such a violent crime spree that it will become one of the District of Colombia’s darkest criminal legends. What is Was is a novel that is full of dark beauty, and brutal realism. Pelecanos creates a brilliant visual of both DC, and the uneasiness of the early 70’s with his portraits of the changing neighborhoods of the city, all brought to life with his descriptive use of the pop culture of the time. Pelecanos has this amazing talent for putting you right in the moments of his stories. You can hear the base coming out of the 8 track player playing James Brown’s latest, taste the greasy fish sandwiches that Strange shares with his mother, and feel the unease as you travel through neighborhoods you don’t belong in. I also love that Pelecanos criminals, even the smart ones, tend to make stupid mistakes, and his heroes are far from infallible. This is not a story about super cops capturing a master criminal, but a real cop, and a real PI, trying to limit the damage one determined criminal can do. If you have yet to take on a Pelecanos novel, this is a wonderful place to start. Despite it being the 5th novel involving Derek Strange, it works well as a standalone with only minor spoilers for Hard Revolution, the previous Strange novel and it contains all of the themes and feel of a Pelecanos novel. Pelecanos fans will rejoice in a new Derek Strange tale and he certainly does his fans justice. What is Was is the hip thrilling story that his fans have come to expect, full of authentic, almost poetic dialogue, and human characters which will leave the listener wanting more.
Some of my favorite narrators have voiced Pelecanos’ work, like Richard Allen and Dion Graham, as well as some of Graham’s former The Wire Co-Stars, like Lance Reddick and Chad Coleman. I always believed the Pelecanos’ work, with a narrator that can make his words sing just right, is even better in audio form. JD Jackson proves me right with his excellent performance of What it Was. Jackson perfectly captures the musical rhythms of Pelecanos’ prose, as wells as the cadence and swerve of the dialogue from characters ranging from low level street thugs and Jersey button men, to Greek diner owners and DC working girls. Jackson’s performance seems almost inspired by the pre-disco funk of the early 70’s, creating the feel of the streets of DC with his voice as Pelecanos’ creates it with his words. Hachette Audio’s production was excellent overall, I even kinda dug the opening and closing music, which had an appropriate 70’s area funk feel to it.
Note: A special thanks to the good people at Hachette Audio for providing me with a copy of this title for review.