August 16, 2006


The Dark Secrets Of Black Noir (OTTO PENZLER, August 16, 2006, NY Sun)

Many white writers have used black characters in their fiction, but none as consistently and convincingly as George Pelecanos.

The first really successful book about a black cop was "In the Heat of the Night" by John Ball, who, in spite of creating the iconic Virgil Tibbs, was an excruciatingly bad writer, his prose more wooden than Sherwood Forest. He had a terrific idea for a novel, assigning a black policeman down South to work with a redneck sheriff, and sent it off to the greatest mystery editor who ever lived, Joan Kahn. She painstakingly worked with Ball to rewrite again and again, finally pulling a book out of him that was good enough to win the Edgar Allan Poe Award. It then became a motion picture starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger that was a colossal hit.

Ball sent the sequel to Kahn who, again, required him to do a great deal of rewriting. Ball agreed to do some but refused to do any heavy lifting, reminding her that he was so talented that he'd won an Edgar. He never had another successful book and his career sailed away, carrying him back into the obscurity from which he had briefly surfaced.

By far the most successful white author with a black protagonist is James Patterson, whose Alex Cross novels sell in the stratospheric millions. Cross, however, doesn't seem any more black than Malibu surfers — he works in a largely white environment with white colleagues, chasing white bad buys.

By contrast, the majority of the characters in the new novel by Mr. Pelecanos, "The Night Gardener", are black, and they seem pretty authentic to me.

I'm pretty sure Ed McBain had made Arthur Brown a regulart of the 87th Precinct before Virgil Tibbs debuted, but Mr. Pelecanos is certainly a must read, not least because we owe him for his work on The Wire

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 16, 2006 8:19 AM

Speaking of which, Season 3 of the Wire just came out on dvd, and Season 4 kicks off in September.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at August 16, 2006 10:23 AM

I have read 3 of his books now and he sure seems to nail the situations from what I remember of DC when I lived there. I still remember getting lost in areas of DC a couple of times and what Pelecanos describes looks just like what I saw then.

The other thing I like about Pelecanos is that he makes his characters seem like believable people. He does not sugar coat many of them at all. Even his major protagonist has some doubts as to whether he will be able to make it.

Excellent books and well worth reading.

Posted by: dick at August 17, 2006 11:54 AM