Capital Crimes

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For George Pelecanos, Washington, D.C., is a kind of Dodge City, a racially charged city where conflict is routine. On CBS News Sunday Morning, he led Correspondent Anthony Mason to the dark, shadowy streets where the Capitol dome is a distant apparition, and reveals painful secrets of his own past.

In a sense, since Washington, D.C. is the capital, all crimes committed there are Capital Crimes. And it would take a writer of monumental talent to do all those crimes justice.

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On the dark streets of D.C., Pelecanos is a cowboy, cruising the nation's capital, spinning tales to a spaghetti western soundtrack, the scores that inspire him.

He says, "Everything that I do now as a novelist has been informed in some way from these movies... My books kind of hurtle forward towards an apocalypse."

Like "Right As Rain," the story of a racially charged capital and a D.C. cop named Terry Quinn:

"He looked across the tracks at the ticket office as the passing train raised wind and dust and he closed his eyes. Quinn thought of his favorite western movie, 'Once Upon A Time in The West.' Three Gunman are waiting on the platform of an empty train station as the credits roll."

Pelecanos explains, "Everything was big, you know. It was operatic. Not that I know anything about opera. But the music, the close-ups, the eyes and the motivations. And what was at stake. It's why I'm drawn to the crime genre, is because of the conflict. And there's no greater conflict than life and death, right?"

"The ensuing violent act is swift and final. Standing there at night on the platform of the station in Silver Spring, he often felt like he was waiting for that train. In many ways, he felt he'd been waiting all his life."

His books can be very violent.

"Oh, yeah," says the author. "They're violent, and they're graphically violent... I hope that you, when you've read one of my books, that you've had a satisfying reading experience. But I don't want you to feel good about the world afterwards necessarily or about yourself. Because this is what's going on out there. When somebody gets shot, you ought to know what a bullet does to their body."

Pelecanos knows. The title of his first novel says it. At the age of 16, he himself committed "A Firing Offense."

"I shot my friend with a .38 special. It was in my house," he says.

It started as a game. Then, without thinking, Pelecanos pointed the gun at his friend and pulled the trigger. The shot blew off a piece of his friend's face and went out his neck.

His friend recovered. But, in a way, Pelecanos never has.

Says the author, "I can't lie to you. I mean, this is something that I think about every day of my life. That I'll think about for the rest of my life. It doesn't go away."

He's a father now, raising three adopted children not far from the neighborhood where he grew up. In the '70s, Pelecanos wasn't even imagining a writing career.

"I was selling women's shoes," he recalls. "And I got to talk to girls all day long. I got to touch their feet... I basically put myself through college selling shoes on commission."

His dad, a Greek immigrant, ran a luncheonette in D.C. In the summers, beginning about age 10, Pelecanos worked as a delivery boy: "When I started, it was right after the riots in '68. The April '68 riots. I started that summer. And this whole city had changed."

Pelecanos was changing, too. What he saw during those summers would color his crime fiction: "And the music on the radio it was all about, 'Say it Loud, I'm black and I'm proud,' you know. And it really stoked me. It really got me jazzed about this living city."

By his early 30s, Pelecanos the shoe salesman was running a chain of electronics stores. But he hated his job.

His wife, Emily, recalls, "At night, he came home and said he felt like someone was standing on his chest all day."

So when he told her he wanted to quit to qrite a novel, says Emily Pelecanos, "I was all in favor of it, because he was so miserable... I always knew he wanted to write a book, but it didn't know if he could actually do it. I was very proud of him when he did."

And so was born Pelecanos' alter ego, Nick Stefanos, an electronics salesman turned private eye, who tries to help his clients but can't seem to help himself.

"He wakes up in this park right along the river one morning at the beginning of the book 'Down by the River Where The Dead Men Go' and he's hit bottom," says Pelecanos, and reads an excerpt:

"I was sitting in a wooded area, the grass worn down to weeds and dirt, littered with plastic bags and fast food wrappers, empty beer cans, malt liquor bottles, peach brandy pints, used rubbers, the odd shoe. I looked in the rearview at my eyes, unrecognizable. My wallet lay flat and open on the shotgun bucket. I picked it up, looked at my own face staring out at me from my district of Columbia license: 'Nicholas J. Stefanos, Private Investigator.' So that's what I was."

If Pelecanos has sympathy for even his bleakest charactersm it's because he's acquainted with the whirlpool of darkness that sucks them in.

"I feel like I know these people in a lot of ways," he explains. "I'm not without sin either."

And suddenly, after 10 novels, Pelecanos is hot, one of the "very best young American crime writers," Esquire magazine called him. And the New York Times says "Hell To Pay," his new book, "looks like his long overdue big league breakthrough."

Not bad for a kid who thought his future might be in women's shoes.

Has he ever thought about going back to selling shoes?

"Yes. Trust me. I have," he says. "Still wanna be that guy on one knee, holdin' the calf."

But in the end, it's the city and its stories that keep seducing him.

What is he writing the books for?

"I'm writing them for posterity, for lack of a better expression," replies the author. "You know, I really believe that I'm leaving a record of this city."

In his unflinching crime fiction, the kid who ran food for his father has written his own spaghetti western score: The good, the bad, and the ugly of the capital city.