Describing Soul Circus, the latest book by George P. Pelecanos, as a crime novel is like dismissing the Mercedes-Benz piloted by one of its seamiest characters as basic transportation. The story intersperses vividly realized action sequences with passionate social commentary -- epitomized by its metaphorical title, which is credited to a Muslim newspaper peddler who likens the pandemic of inner-city bloodshed to "one big ring of souls, killin' each other while Mr. Charlie claps." But Pelecanos is more interested in reaching readers than he is in avoiding labels.
"If people knew what they were getting, I think less folks would come to the party," he says. "But if I can entertain them at the same time that I leave them with something afterward -- something that makes them look at the world a little differently when they're done -- then that's what I want to do."
In Circus -- which, like his previous ten novels, is set in his home town of Washington, D.C. -- Pelecanos walks this tightrope with uncommon skill. The central plot lines revolve around Derek Strange, an African-American private investigator, and Terry Quinn, a Caucasian ex-cop working as Strange's partner. Along the way, however, Pelecanos not only reveals loopholes the size of exit wounds in the District's gun laws, but he gets deep into the heads of numerous drug dealers and hangers-on. Most crime novelists wouldn't bother adding dimension to such figures, but Pelecanos believes that treating them like interchangeable targets does everyone a disservice.
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"When somebody in the 'bad' parts of town is murdered here in Washington, they get a paragraph at most, and that's it," he says. "Sometimes they're not even identified. And the effect is that if you're reading the newspaper every day, you subconsciously get the idea that this kind of life has less value than other kinds of life."
At the same time, Pelecanos can't help but wonder why many of those who become statistics seem to have so little regard for themselves or their peers. He explores this theme in a sequence in which thugs kill each other while a Missy Elliott tune blasts from stereos in both of their cars. As Pelecanos puts it, "They're both listening to the same song on the radio -- which shows that, in a way, they're not any different from each other. So why are they doing this foolish thing?"
Pop music plays a key role in many of Pelecanos's books, including 1998's King Suckerman. Sean "P. Diddy" Combs purchased the film option for Suckerman, and Pelecanos spent nine months penning a screenplay, only to have the project fall apart. This outcome soured Pelecanos on adapting his novels for the screen himself -- "I don't want to waste my time rewriting something I've already written," he says -- but not on film or television in general. L.A. Confidential director Curtis Hanson is committed to making Right as Rain, the book that introduced Strange and Quinn; David Benioff, author of The 25th Hour, is handling script duties. Meanwhile, Pelecanos is hard at work on the second season of HBO's The Wire, a highly acclaimed crime drama. But his first love remains novels -- and he doesn't mind if they get pigeonholed.
"I'm not turning my back on genre fiction," he says. "I do want to deliver the goods, so it's a good vehicle for me. If I was branded a literary social novelist, I don't think it would get me in as many doors."