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February 6, 2012 / John Sheridan

Review: What It Was by George Pelecanos

“What It Was” (Amazon, Amazon UK, Book Depository UK) can best be described as Pelecanos doing what he does best – evoking a time and a scene replete with accompanying soundtrack which is evinced in forensic-like detail as are the clothes and cars.

It’s great to have Derek Strange and Nick Stefanos back albeit with the novel largely being Strange recounting a tale from the past there’s little enough of Stefanos. Personally I originally discovered Pelecanos as an author via his Stefanos trilogy (Amazon, Amazon UK, Book Depository UK) so he will always be one of my favourite characters.

The lead characters in “What It Was” are Derek Strange, Frank Vaughn, who also featured in Hard Revolution (Amazon, Amazon UK, Book Depository UK), and Red Fury Jones who the author reveals in an interesting note is loosely based on a real person and inserted into The Night Gardener for the purpose of eventually expanding into “What It Was”.

Red Fury embarks on a crime spree fuelled by the belief that the reputation earned by his actions on the street will outlast his life and importantly outweigh the consequences so he is unperturbed by police attention or potential retaliation from other criminals victimised by his actions. Frank Vaughn is the police detective that is tracking him down and Strange is the PI who has been retained on a seemingly unrelated case but which will intersect at some point.

A passage where Vaughn says “The clock ticks. You get toward the finish line, you realise that what’s important is the name you leave behind…..Red Jones gets it” encapsulates the motivation of Jones in executing these crimes in the manner he does.

Unfortunately I can’t recall enough of the detail of the other Strange novels to do a proper comparative analysis as I read them too long ago but while this is a step above last year’s debut for Lucas Spero in The Cut (Amazon, Amazon UK, Book Depository UK) at the same time I don’t expect this to broaden Pelecanos’ appeal and reach new readers given that it doesn’t really break new ground for him as an author and much of my appreciation for “What It Was” lies in the familiarity with the characters. So if you have read Pelecanos before you’re going to want to get this but if you haven’t maybe start with Hard Revolution.

P.S. The Night Gardener (Amazon, Amazon UK, Book Depository UK) is probably still my favourite of his works by the way along with the aforementioned Stefanos trilogy.


Leave a Comment
  1. Gigistar / Feb 7 2012 2:52 pm

    I tackled Pelecanos’ work starting with the Strange/Quinn series, and what a great start “Right As Rain” was. Pelecanos is certainly up there with the top-notch contemporary writers in America and his ability to depict the contradictions and the internal struggles of modern Washington D.C. is simply fascinating. Not to mention the complexity of his main characters, such a rich blend of good and bad, virtues and flaws.
    I’m very curious about the Stefanos series,too, but since I’m still missing The Night Gardener I think I’ll take your word for it and make it jump a few steps on my TBR list. I could use a nice stand-alone novel at this stage!
    BTW, neither of you posted a full-blown review of The Night Gardener, right?

    • John Sheridan / Feb 7 2012 5:58 pm

      I read The Night Gardener a few years back before I started contributing to the blog but maybe I will get around to posting something about it in the future. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy it.


  1. Review: What It Was by George Pelecanos | The Game's Afoot

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