George Pelecanos knows how to make a killing. His best-selling tales of gumshoes and savage acts on gritty streets in and around the nation's capital have proven him a master of crime noir.
His latest novel, The Turnaround, trains its focus on yet another urban nightmare, but this one is based on an incident that happened in his own neighborhood when he was 15 years old.
Pelecanos tells host Scott Simon that there was a shooting about three miles from his house and police locked down the neighborhood, in Maryland's Montgomery County. While he didn't know the full details of the crime, he says, he knew he wanted to use the shooting — and what happened to the boys when they grew up — as a skeleton for his new book.
In The Turnaround, Pelecanos writes about a boy who commits a hate crime in 1972 and years later runs into his victim at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. They form an unlikely friendship.
At the heart of the book is the idea that people never outlive responsibility for what they do.
"The people that seem to be successful are the ones who can leave it behind, especially the dumb things they did and the dumb things they felt, too. The bad ideas they had," Pelecanos says. "And the ones who don't are the ones who hold on to that and can't grow."
'Nobody Knew Who I Was'
To get strong dialogue for the book, he says he spent a lot of time at Walter Reed. He had a friend, a Vietnam veteran in the Wounded Warriors program, who got him in.
"I had pretty much free rein there," Pelecanos says. "Nobody knew who I was. The soldiers — I'd just go sit next to people — wherever, in the therapy room or in the Malone house, and I'd just start talking to people.
"The vignettes you see in the book are almost verbatim conversations I had with people." he says.
Pelecanos says his novels don't follow the traditional crime-fiction path. He usually doesn't plot a murder in the first chapter, but rather 60 or 70 pages into the book, in a similar vein to best-selling author Elmore Leonard.
"I'm discovering the characters as I write them, and I'm letting the readership get to know these people so that once something does happen, the impact is that much greater," he says.
Pelecanos, who also wrote for the HBO series The Wire and The Pacific, says he develops characters and is much less concerned with the plot.
"The idea is that the whole book should be good," he says. "You shouldn't have the idea that you're trying to work out a puzzle or a monumental twist. What you need to be is invested in the characters from the beginning to the end in their journey."
In some ways, the characters' journey in The Turnaround isn't that dissimilar from his own.
Pelecanos says he worked as a cook, a dishwasher and a women's shoe salesman at The Bootlegger in Washington, D.C. He says it was the best job growing up because he could play music, bring in old records and meet women. "You could touch their feet and their calves," he says.
When he was in college, his father got sick, so he quit school to run the family's diner.
"I had to drop out of college and run the place. My family would have lost everything," Pelecanos says. "I didn't want to be in college anyway. ... It was just fortuitous that I had all of this life experience when I decided it was time for me to try this thing out."