Derek Strange and Terry Quinn

Created by George P. Pelecanos (1957--)

Let's just play the race card now, and get it over with.

DEREK STRANGE is black. He's an former cop, now in his fifties, who runs his own Washington, D.C. detective agency. He carries a buck knife and may get a little slick at times, but he's respected within his neighbourhood as a decent, quietly compassionate kinda guy, a devoted, church-going son with a dying mother and deep ties to his community. He has a boxer named Greco for a pet and a taste for the soundtracks of old westerns and, this being Pelecanos after all, the funk and soul music of the sixties and seventies.

His agency, Strange Investigations, is basically Derek, plus Ron Lattimer, his yuppiesh assistant, and Janine Baker, his long-time office manager/secretary/assistant and sometime lover.

In Right As Rain (2001), the book which kicks off the series, Derek is hired by Leona Wilson, the grieving mother of a young black police officer, to clear her son's damaged reputation. Her son, Christopher, was killed in the line-of-duty -- by another cop.

A white cop.

The notorious and well-publicized incident occured a year previously, and the shooter, TERRY QUINN, although cleared in an official investigation which found the shooting to be as "right as rain," is plagued by guilt, and tormented by thoughts that his own racism led to the shooting. He's quit the police department, and is working in a used bookstore. But in the course of the investigation, Derek finds himself teaming up with Terry to work the case, and an uneasy friendship between the two former cops, one black, one white, begins to develop.

Terry is younger, more prone to violence and anger, more impulsive than the cool, collected Derek. When we first meet Terry, he's working in a used bookstore, reading westerns, and taking long walks along deserted city streets, trying to sort out his life. His musical tastes tend toward blue collar rock. Before the typical Pelecanos shootout in Right as Rain, he preps himself by playing Springsteen.

And, indeed, music fills the air, as it always does, in Pelecanos' work. Other musicians name-dropped include The Clash, Otis Redding, The Blackbyrds, Ennio Morricone, Stanley Clarke, George Jones, James Brown and Randy Travis.

In Pelecanos' novels, music, even more than movies and books, are the great cultural signifiers, and he uses them with scalpel-like precision, dissecting a swirling array of issues. Including, in Right As Rain, the issues of race and prejudice.

If anyone can tear deep into the heart of the issue, it's Pelecanos, who has always shown a deft hand at plumbing the dark undertones of America's obsessions with race. He doesn't just play race cards, he plays them with glee and makes them do tricks.

Right As Rain is just one powerful, kick-ass book, as Pelecanose delivers some of his most compelling characters yet (the shitkicker father-son team of drug runners has to be read to believe), and delivers one hell of a finale, all rendered in a terse, matter-of-fact style that recalls Dashiell Hammett at times or Joe Gores' DKA novels. And even better was the fact that it was followed by Hell To Pay (2002) and the heart-rending Soul Circus (2003), which seemed to wrap up the series.

But Pelecanos wasn't quite done, it turned out. In 2004, a prequel of sorts, Hard Revolution, appeared, offering a savage glimpse into the life of Strange as a young rookie cop csught in the turbulence of the DC riots. Eight years later, What It Was (2012) appeared, with Strange relating an early case from "back in the day" to Pelecanos' first series detective Nick Stefanos.

In fact, don't be completely shocked to discover Pelecanos' other series characters, such as Dimitri Karras or Marcus Clay showing up in this series -- or any of his other books. Pelecanos has created an entire D.C.-bound universe of fictional characters whose lives (and those of their relatives) intersect each others in often strange and amusing ways.

* * * * *

Pelecanos' original British publisher, Serpent's Tail, once proclaimed Pelecanos "the rightful heir to the noir tradition of James Cain, David Goodis and Jim Thompson," and judging from much of the critical praise he's received, they may be right. One reviewer even dubbed Pelecanos "the Zola of Washington," a reference he (and I) both admitted we had to look up.

He was born in Washington, D.C. in 1957, and worked as a line cook, dishwasher, bartender, shoe salesman, electronics salesman, construction worker, and retail general manager before publishing his first novel in 1992. The Big Blowdown was the recipient of the International Crime Novel of the Year award in both Germany and Japan; King Suckerman was shortlisted for the Golden Dagger award in the UK. His short fiction has appeared in Esquire and the collections Unusual Suspects and Best American Mystery Stories of 1997. He is an award-winning journalist and pop-culture essayist who has written for The Washington Post, GQ, Washingtonian, Your Flesh, and numerous other publications.

An acknowledged movie freak, Pelecanos has had a second second career in television and film, behind the scenes. Until recently, he served as manager of Circle Films, a D.C. independent best known for producing the Coen Brothers' first three movies and for breaking John Woo's The Killer in the States. Most recently, he has written several scripts for David Simon's HBO crime drama The Wire and Treme, and in 2011 introduced a new P.I., Iraq war vet Spero Lucas.


  • "Bad reviewers still sometimes say that a crime book is so good it "transcends the genre" and becomes actual literature. Pelecanos's stuff is some of the best writing in the US these days, and we all know it, but we don't need to make up any nonsense about leaving the genre. Soul Circus finishes up the Derek Strange/Terry Quinn story from Right As Rain and Hell To Pay (and even has an update on how Marcus Clay and Nick Stefanos are doing). It's got the music, the westerns, the gunfights and shootouts, the gangsters, the losers, the cars, the women, the drugs, and the badass behaviour we expect. It's also got the deeper issues: race, politics, guns and society, honour, fate, raising children, love, redemption, how to be a decent person in a bad world. It's all wrapped up in the streets of Washington and Pelecanos's terse, natural style and large cast of characters. All that and he does it regularly every year."

-- William Denton, Rara-Avis



Illuminating interview conducted by Crescent Blues, featuring Pelecanos and fellow crimewriter Dennis Lehane at a joint reading and book signing at the Mystery Bookshop in Bethesda, Md., in June 1999.

From Publishers' Weekly, a biography/interview with Pelecanos, conducted by Jennifer Schuessler in January 2000. A lot of background details on his life prior to writing the Stefanos series. "I thought writers were WASPy guys... not Greek kids like me who worked in carryout shops."

The January Magazine review of Hard Revolution by Thrilling Detective editor Kevin Burton Smith.

Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to Bluefox808 for his help here.

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