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Soulful Riff

Crime novelist George Pelacanos makes music with Soul Circus.


Not long into Soul Circus -- George Pelecanos' new crime novel -- an experienced black private detective named Derek Strange cruises the streets of Washington, D.C., with his young partner, Terry Quinn, a white man who's new to the business. The two argue good-naturedly about the song lyrics pouring from the speakers of Strange's Chevy:

"There it is, man," said Strange. "He said 'Hug her.'"

"He said 'fuck her,' Dad."

"See, you're focusing on the wrong thing, Terry. What you ought to be doing, on a beautiful day like this, is groovin' to the song. This is the Spinners' debut on Atlantic. Some people call this the most beautiful Philly soul album ever recorded."

"Yeah, I know. Produced by Taco Bell."

"Thom Belle."

In Soul Circus, the third and final entry in Pelecanos' Strange/Quinn trilogy (after 2001's Right as Rain and last year's Hell to Pay) and his eleventh crime novel, the author drops names like Missy Elliott, Ennio Morricone and B.T. Express like trail-marking breadcrumbs. The book even includes a continuing riff on the actor Bo Svenson and the later Walking Tall movies ("The ones that sucked," as Quinn puts it).

"You can't escape it," Pelecanos explains by phone from his home in Silver Spring, Maryland. "Our whole psyche is saturated with popular culture."

Growing up in the Washington area, he inhaled film, watching Westerns with his father and grandfather, then graduating to blaxploitation and kung fu movies in his teen years.

"Music kicks in when your hormones kick in," Pelecanos says. "That's when I got really hopped up on music, specifically funk and soul from the '70s -- which, in my opinion, is the most glorious period of American popular music."

Later he dived into D.C.'s fabled early '80s punk scene, which he alluded to repeatedly in his first few novels. Its DIY aesthetic greatly influenced and encouraged him. "Before that," he recalls, "artists -- whether musicians, writers or filmmakers -- they were somebody else to me, like I could never be one of those people."

Throughout Soul Circus, Pelecanos chronicles D.C.'s rampant and violent black drug/gang subculture, the dynamics of which he absorbed through copious research. "You have to talk to people and not be afraid," he says. "Walk into a bar and inject yourself into the conversation. Once people know that you're not some kind of cop or bill collector, they want to talk. I ride with the police and with private investigators. I sit in on some of the big trials."

That effort has given him a deft ear for dialogue, admittedly a stumbling block for some writers choosing to portray ethnic communities other than their own.

"The mistake that white writers make when they try to do something like this is, they say, 'All right, I've got a black character -- he's gonna talk like this.' That's the wrong way to approach it. The thing that I try to do is give everybody a distinct voice. If you're in a room or on a bus with twenty black people and close your eyes and listen, they all sound different. It's about giving people respect."

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