The Blaggers Guide To... George Pelecanos

The man Obama likes to take on holiday

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The Independent Culture

* Though he is probably best known in this country as one of the writers behind the television series The Wire, George Pelecanos was a successful author of detective fiction long before he was ever approached to write for TV. His 18th novel, What it Was, is the latest in the series of books starring detectives Derek Strange and Terry Quinn, and will be published on Thursday.

* The first lines of What it Was (Orion, £9.99) read: "It was a Plymouth Fury, the GT Sport, a two-door 440 V-8 with hidden headlamps and a four-barrel carb. The color scheme was red over white, and its vanity plates read 'Coco'..."

* Fans of Pelecanos's writing include Barack Obama, whose summer holiday reading in 2009 included that year's new release The Way Home, and who named The Wire in a pre-election interview as his favourite show. Other fans include the best-selling British crime writer Val McDermid, who told The Independent in 2006: "I've started an advance copy of George Pelecanos's The Night Gardener. I love the way he writes: economical, rhythmic, elliptical and angrily political." Another is Stephen King, who wrote in Entertainment Weekly that Pelecanos is "perhaps the greatest living American crime writer". On his website, Pelecanos notes that "Mr King used the qualifier 'perhaps'."

* In turn, Pelecanos's favourite author is John Steinbeck, he says, "for the reason that he writes simply and for the people, and about everyday people. It's rare in American literature, which is mostly about succeeding or winning. He often writes about the opposite and I appreciate that."

* Pelecanos always over tips. "When I go to England," he has said, "people think I'm stupid." The habit is probably due to Pelecanos's experiences in previous jobs such as line cook, dishwasher, bartender, construction worker and woman's shoe salesman. His father was a Greek immigrant who ran a lunch counter, and his early novels and characters drew on these experiences. For instance, the hero of his first novel, A Firing Offense, is a Greek-American.

* Later novels are notable for Pelecanos's dedication to research. He has been allowed to tag along on police patrols and sit in while suspects are interrogated, and for the 2005 novel Drama City he worked with the Humane Society and parole officers.

* Pelecanos was not a big reader until he discovered the works of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane and Ross MacDonald on an American Fiction elective, part of his undergraduate degree in film at the University of Maryland. "It was like a door opened for me," he has said. "These books were about everyday people, and they seemed to be written by ordinary people. That's when it occurred to me I could do something like that." However, his first novels were not published until he was in his mid-thirties.

* Pelecanos joined the team behind The Wire for the first season in 2002. He has told fans of the series that those who watch it with the subtitles switched on are completely missing the point. That would presumably include the family of the British actor Dominic West, who plays detective Jimmy McNulty in the series. His dad "couldn't handle the language", he once confessed, while "My mum managed five minutes" and "My wife has managed 10 minutes of episode one about five times and falls asleep."

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