Books: Snowstorms in the city of cocaine

Give way, Ellroy and Leonard, to the duo from DC . Peter Guttridge;The Sweet Forever by George P Pelecanos Serpent's Tail, pounds 9.99, 298pp discovers the Next Big Thing in crime writing
WASHINGTON DC, 1986. In the neighbourhoods black children are shooting each other over nickel bags, but the Mayor is too coked up to care that a snowstorm is engulfing the inner city. No one else seems to care either - except record-store owner Marcus Clay and his friend Dimitri Karras, who find themselves caught up in a fight with the local drug lord in an effort to keep the streets clean. For a little longer, anyway.

The Sweet Forever, a powerful, pessimistic and brutal look at the way drugs changed Washington, is the third of George Pelecanos's celebrated DC Quartet of novels. The project - spanning five decades - has been compared to James Ellroy's LA Quartet. Yet the two have little in common. Pelecanos does not go in for Ellroy's stylistic pyrotechnics, although he is a deft stylist with a good ear for working-class speech. The fluency of his dialogue matches that of Elmore Leonard. Nor does he go in for Ellroy's convoluted plots. He prefers to focus on a single incident and let a story develop from its consequences.

The Sweet Forever starts with a white guy grabbing, on impulse, a bag of money from a burning car outside Clay's record store. The money is drug money and the narrative unfolds around the dealer's attempts to get it back. The book is bleak but invests some hope in the possibility that decent people can make a difference. Not that these two are exactly Dudley Do-Rights: Clay, separated from his wife, used to do a little small-time dealing, and Karras is pretty much addicted to coke.

Pelecanos writes noir fiction but his precursor is less James M Cain than Horace McCoy, the pulp celebrant of working-class lives. He also describes an inner city in which different races co-exist, as with the African-American Clay and his Greek friend Karras. For Pelecanos, noir is not about the shadows of Venetian blinds representing prison bars or any other stylistic flourish, but about children in fear in the cities. One of the most powerful scenes comes when a couple of kids are chased down alleys at night by hoodlums with guns. These bogeymen are real.

Pelecanos was born and bred in Washington and is genuinely angry about what has been allowed to happen to the city. The first of the DC Quartet, The Big Blowdown (set in the Greek community in Washington in the Forties), and the last, Shame The Devil, are set for UK publication over the next few months. The second, the Seventies-set King Suckerman -- a hip, hard- boiled thriller bringing together drug deals, blaxploitation films, funk and racial tension - is being made into a movie with Puff Daddy in the lead. Pelecanos, who ran the production company that made the Coen brothers' Miller's Crossing and Raising Arizona, has written the script and stuffed into it as much music as he could, in the hope that it would be made as a sort of criminal American Graffiti. (Each novel has a virtual soundtrack of the period's coolest music embedded in it.)

Word has been spreading about Pelecanos, as Serpent's Tail has published his Nick Stefanos trilogy. Stefanos, who also crops up in the Quartet as a supporting character, is a hard-drinking (of course) private investigator who needs to tend bar to make ends meet. He will be back in a new novel next year. Pelecanos is going to be the Next Big Thing in crime fiction - and deservedly so.