His latest novel, "Hard Revolution," goes back in time to depict life in the nation's capital during the civil unrest of 1968.
The D.C. Pelecanos writes about is not the one of Pennsylvania Avenue. He tells The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith, "It's the other side of the federal city. It's the city where generations of people have lived that came up from the south. Working class and you don't always hear about. You only hear about the transient D.C., the government D.C. This is the other side."
His main character is Derek Strange, the protagonist of his three other books. "Hard Revolution" is a prequel that takes Strange from the ages of 12 to 22. He ends up as a rookie cop "policing the riots in the wake of the Dr. King assassination," Pelecanos says.
A turning point for Strange is when he gets caught doing something wrong and does right by him – something the author personally experienced in his youth.
He says, "I did get caught shoplifting once and it kind of turned me around. My dad had to come to get me and I realized at that point I'm doing something wrong here. I need to get over to the other side of the street. It just is a moment in the book where somebody does an act of kindness for him. He doesn't turn them into the cops. And it changes his life."
Having written about Strange as a middle-aged man before, Pelecanos says once he decided to write his '60s novel, he knew Strange was just the right character.
He says, "It was interesting to me to have a guy, a young black man, who is a cop policing his own people during this very pivotal moment in history."
Though Pelecanos is white, African-Americans have embraced his books, for the authentic voices he gives to his characters.
Pelecanos says, "I think if you do it with respect, you're going to get good feedback. I try to give everybody an individual voice. I never think, well, I'm going to write a back guy now and he's going to sound like this. I always try to think: Who is this person? Where did he come from? What's his history? Then the voice emerges singularly."
And critics appreciate it as well. Newsweek says his writing "reads less like whodunits and more like reports from the war zone."
Flattered, Pelecanos says, "I'm trying to do it in a reportorial way and reflect what's going on in society. I'm less interested in the crime than what's going on."
Interestingly enough, Pelecanos offers a CD with the book. He says, "It's available to people who come to the signings and on certain other outlets. And I put a lot of soul music in the '60s, especially some Chicago soul. It was bold to do it. I've been wanting to do it for a long time."