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Washington, D.C., 1972. Derek Strange has left the police department and set up shop as a private investigator. His former partner, Frank "Hound Dog" Vaughn, is still on the force. When a young woman comes to Strange asking for his help recovering a cheap ring she claims has sentimental value, the case leads him onto Vaughn's turf, where a local drug addict's been murdered, shot point-blank in his apartment.

Soon both men are on the trail of a ruthless killer: Red Fury, so called for his looks and the car his girlfriend drives, but a name that fits his personality all too well. Red Fury doesn't have a retirement plan, as Vaughn points out - he doesn't care who he has to cross, or kill, to get what he wants. As the violence escalates and the stakes get higher, Strange and Vaughn know the only way to catch their man is to do it their own way.

Rich with details of place and time - the cars, the music, the clothes - and fueled by non-stop action, this is Pelecanos writing in the hard-boiled noir style that won him his earliest fans and placed him firmly in the ranks of the top crime writers in America.

246 pages, Paperback

First published January 23, 2012

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About the author

George Pelecanos

54 books1,443 followers
George Pelecanos was born in Washington, D.C., in 1957. He worked as a line cook, dishwasher, bartender, and woman's shoe salesman before publishing his first novel in 1992.

Pelecanos is the author of eighteen novels set in and around Washington, D.C.: A Firing Offense, Nick's Trip, Shoedog, Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go, The Big Blowdown, King Suckerman, The Sweet Forever, Shame the Devil, Right as Rain, Hell to Pay, Soul Circus, Hard Revolution, Drama City, The Night Gardener, The Turnaround, The Way Home, The Cut, and What It Was. He has been the recipient of the Raymond Chandler award in Italy, the Falcon award in Japan, and the Grand Prix du Roman Noir in France. Hell to Pay and Soul Circus were awarded the 2003 and 2004 Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. His short fiction has appeared in Esquire, Playboy, and the collections Unusual Suspects, Best American Mystery Stories of 1997, Measures of Poison, Best American Mystery Stories of 2002, Men from Boys, and Murder at the Foul Line. He served as editor on the collections D.C. Noir and D.C. Noir 2: The Classics, as well as The Best Mystery Stories of 2008. He is an award-winning essayist who has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, GQ, Sight and Sound, Uncut, Mojo, and numerous other publications. Esquire called him "the poet laureate of the D.C. crime world." In Entertainment Weekly, Stephen King wrote that Pelecanos is "perhaps the greatest living American crime writer." Pelecanos would like to note that Mr. King used the qualifier "perhaps."

Pelecanos served as producer on the feature films Caught (Robert M. Young, 1996), Whatever, (Susan Skoog, 1998) and BlackMale (George and Mike Baluzy, 1999), and was the U.S. distributor of John Woo's cult classic, The Killer and Richard Bugajski's Interrogation. Most recently, he was a producer, writer, and story editor for the acclaimed HBO dramatic series, The Wire, winner of the Peabody Award and the AFI Award. He was nominated for an Emmy for his writing on that show. He was a writer and co-producer on the World War II miniseries The Pacific, and is currently at work as an executive producer and writer on David Simon's HBO dramatic series Treme, shot in New Orleans.

Pelecanos lives with his family in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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5 stars
434 (19%)
4 stars
994 (44%)
3 stars
656 (29%)
2 stars
131 (5%)
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31 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 278 reviews
Profile Image for Baba.
3,503 reviews731 followers
November 18, 2022
Derek Strange and Terry Quinn book five: Strange relates a tale to Nick Stefanos; about the days just before Watergate broke in 1972. The Washington DC locals look back and remember, not the fall of Nixon, but the rampage of 'Red Fury' and 'Coco' as witnessed and investigated by a young Strange and his police 'friend' Frank 'Hound Dog' Vaughan. Published in 2012, and Pelecanos is still producing these gems set in DC amongst the Black, Greek and White criminal communities and the police that police them. Love it! A Four Star, 8 out of 12 read.

2013 read
Profile Image for Dan Schwent.
2,861 reviews10.5k followers
November 17, 2013
When Derek Strange is hired to find a missing ring, he has no idea what he's getting into. Robert Jones, aka Red Fury, is on a crime spree, looking to make a name for himself, and Frank Vaughn is on the case. Will Strange find the ring he's looking for? Can Frank Vaughn prove he isn't too old and bring Red Fury in?

And now, I can add "Read the complete novels of George Pelecanos in 2013" to my resume.

I was hooked on What it Was from the first page. Derek Strange and his new partner, Nick Stefanos, are chatting in a bar when Derek starts telling a story. Much like the last Derek Strange book, What it Was is a tale of the past, when Derek Strange was young and just starting out.

As with all George Pelecanos books, What it Was paints a vivid picture of what life in Washington DC was like, this time in the mid-1970's. Derek Strange is fresh off the police force and looking to make a name for himself as a private investigator. Frank Vaughn, his former partner, is still on the force despite nearing retirement. And Red Fury doesn't care whose toes he steps on.

The McGuffin of the story, the ring Strange is hired to find, is an afterthought for most of the book, though it changes hands quite a few times. The real story is of Strange, Vaughn, and Fury, all with something to prove.

The writing is vintage Pelecanos, full of car and music references and painting a picture of DC life. While I knew Strange wouldn't die, since he was telling the story, there were some tense moments, plus some cameo appearances, like Nick Stefanos and Johnny McGiness working at Nutty Nathan's in the 1970's.

The suspense builds throughout as Strange and Vaughn get closer and closer to crossing paths with Red Fury. When the big moment happened, it didn't go down quite like I suspected but it was still pretty satisfying. Write more Derek Strange, Pelecanos!

What it Was is an easy four stars. If you haven't read a George Pelecanos book yet, you're really missing out.
Profile Image for Josh.
1,618 reviews145 followers
March 21, 2018
‘What It Was’ is a sequel of sorts to ‘Hard Revolution’ and focuses more so on the criminal perspective rather than the PI angle of other Derek Strange novels. Frank Vaughn (aka Hound Dog), reunites with Derek, their bond formed in the blood of a criminal in ‘Hard Revolution’ is ever present. Derek, having quit the police force is now running a fledging PI firm is asked by an attractive woman to track down a ring of sentimental value. Vaughn, for his part, is investigating the murder of a local thug and informant who is a 'tester' of new product before it hits the street. Before long the cases interlock and the bullets fly.

Enter Red Fury, a street gangster with ambition to be legend. Pelecanos crafts some memorable execution-like scenes involving the ever hard Red and his partner in crime. Coco, Fury's other half is the perfect mob-like moll. She's the Madame of a local brothel and is just as tough as her man. As per any Pelecanoss novel, the characters are well defined and a joy to read, those who grace the pages of 'What It Was' are no different.

The Into and Outro provide a sense of continuity to the Strange saga, with Nick Stefanos and Derek recounting killer Red Fury’s rain of homicide in 1972. The bar room scene plays out almost as a direct flow on from ‘Soul Circus’, the last book to feature the PI combo of Strange and Quinn. So in many respect, ‘What It Was’ is a look back at the past with an eye to the future.

I also liked the additional content which provided an insight into the creative process. Pelecanos sighted true events and a conversation with Ed Burns. The idea of Red Fury is also planted in another Pelecanos novel,’ The Night Gardner’ which I’m yet to read.

'What Is Was' is close to the best book to feature Strange. It has an engaging plot, dramatic insight into a more mature Strange, and a criminal cast just as strong as Pelecanos' other books if not more so. I couldn't read this fast enough. 5 stars. Pelecanos has left plenty of room for more stories set either in the present or past. I sure look forward to seeing where he heads next.

My review of Hard Revolution can be found here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...
Profile Image for Lou.
879 reviews852 followers
October 27, 2012
"Red Fury he's the Man
Try and stop him if you can!"

This novel stemmed from George's novel The Night Gardener where a character Red 'Fury' Jones was planted as a fable, he wanted to give a whole story with him in as the bad boy.
And what a story it is, well done this is a throwback to the bygone days of Plymouth automobiles, Afro puffs, when single tracks were on 45 records needed of a spacer, no mobiles, social media, or CCTV. Good old detective work knocking down doors and shacking up perps.
He delivers a kind of tale that could be quite true by the letter.
Red and his Madame Coco are wreaking havoc in town and making themselves known.
They are robbing, killing dealers, testers and suppliers.
Bobby Odum a tester of substances is the main focus of Frank "Hound Dog" Vaughn a Washington, D.C. cop investigating his death by the gun of notorious Red. He's been smoked and his stash taken, that stash happens to be on loan from The Syndicate an out of town mobsters, a whole load of fireworks is about to go off. The syndicate hire two contract man Lou Fanella and Gino Gregorio.
Red is biting off more than he can chew.
Derek Strange our other main character a P.I, that George has been running with in previous novels, has been hired by a lady to recover her precious ring that was in possession of the murdered Bobby by the hands of Red. This interlocks Derek Strange a P.I and Vaughan a cop together in an unofficial way in hot pursuit of bringing down and catching the over eager gun totting up and coming bad guy Red.

This is the kind of story I was waiting to read from Pelecanos, he writes with good characters, crisp dialog and slick style. The pace gathers momentum and delivers a satisfying entertaining rumble tumble tale.

Watergate, Afro puffs, colt 22 Woodsman and Plymouth Fury GT Sport V8 are all from a period of time we will look back on and this story makes you feel part of.
One Red 'Fury' Jones is leaving behind a trail of fire making this one, a must read.

Settle up and listen to the track of this stories days and featured in this book 'If Loving You is Wrong' by Luther Ingram via a single 45 (don't forget the spacer in the middle) and savor.

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You can also catch some video interviews on my webpage here.
Profile Image for James Thane.
Author 8 books6,900 followers
August 1, 2013
In 2001, in Right as Rain, George Pelecanos introduced Derek Strange, an ex-cop turned private detective in Washington D.C., where virtually all of Pelecanos's books are set. Strange would ultimately appear in three other novels, and this book makes the fifth.

On a rainy afternoon in 2011, Strange, who is now on the wrong side of sixty, is sitting in a bar with his pal, Nick Stefanos. A song comes up on the jukebox, as songs are wont to do in a George Pelecanos novel, and it sets Strange to reminiscing about events in the summer of 1972, the summer of the Watergate burglary that would ultimately bring down the Nixon presidency.

Over a long afternoon and several drinks, Strange proceeds to tell Stefanos the story of Red "Fury" Jones. At the time, Strange was just off the police force, beginning his own agency, and so strapped for cash that he couldn't even afford a proper sign out front. A sexy young woman walks into his office and hires Strange to recover a ring that she claims to have inherited from her grandmother. It's just cheap costume jewelry, she says, but it has great sentimental value.

For some reason, the woman had given the ring to a friend who is also a drug addict so that he could have it appraised for her. The story sounds more than a little fishy, but then these stories always do, and Strange agrees to track down the ring.

Strange discovers that the addict to whom the woman had entrusted the ring has been murdered and the ring has gone missing. In pursuit of the missing ring, Strange reconnects with his old partner, Frank Vaughn, the detective in charge of investigating the addict's murder.

What follows is an entertaining tale as Vaughn pursues a multiple murderer while Strange attempt to recover the ring which turns out to be as elusive as the infamous black bird from The Maltese Falcon. The story includes a lot of colorful characters and contains all the trademark Pelecanos references to cars, "decks" of cigarettes, and about eight thousand different songs. There's a fair amount of sex and violence, and it's fun to watch the young Derek Strange in action again. This book will appeal to large numbers of crime fiction readers and fans of Pelecanos will not want to miss it.
Profile Image for Kirk.
Author 37 books216 followers
January 26, 2012
This book is a lot like the decade in which it's set: the garish fashions tend to overshadow the substance, the plot feels loose and sprawling, everybody is collapsing into crass, and the specter of Richard Nixon stinks it up like the bad smell from your local paper mill. Even Amazon's strategy of selling the e-book for 99 cents for its first month makes it seem disposable in a pop way. All of these elements make for a fun, funky read. Pelecanos apparently dashed this off in the summer of 2011 (over a summer! last summer! I'm still trying to find time to upload pictures from last summer!) and it reads like it was dashed-off. Which, again, is part of the charm. The story was inspired by the bloody spree of Raymond "Cadillac" Smith, heretofore known as the black guy in every History channel/Spike TV documentary on the Aryan Brotherhood who was stabbed sixty times in Marion by Tommy Silverstein, not your normal surname among Aryan Bros, but considering how many cats Tommy killed (he's been in solitary for 10,000 days), I wouldn't turn his membership application down either. Anyway, Pelecanos apparently came across a story on Cadillac from June 1972 juxtaposed against one from the Watergate break-in, and, voila, a narrative whose ironies lie in the reader's knowledge of what DC and the nation at large are headed for. Some readers may wish for a more twisty connection between the two crimes than what the book ultimately gives; others may just wish the one guy here didn't eat his own poo while in jail. Personally, I kept waiting for "Red" Fury (Cadillac) to have a bit more characterization or angst to vivify him a bit, but then again, I read the book in two hours, which may be slightly shorter than it took for it to be written. (Again, the fun of it). There's a lot of good action here, plenty of hookers, too, all kinds of cautionary tales about making sure you don't eat Mexican before you snort of coke trail cut with baby laxative, and music. The atmosphere of the music may be the most fun part. Any book where the hero and villain eyeball each other between rows at a Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway concert is awesome in my book. Plus Isaac Hayes makes a cameo. Bare-chested. Nuff said. What it was, my man. As Link from Mod Squad would say: "Solid."
Profile Image for Ed.
Author 37 books2,691 followers
February 3, 2012
I've been an avid George Pelecanos fan going back for over a decade now. For starters, he uses a lot of musical references from the time period when I listened to rock-and-roll, so I can hear the songs. WHAT IT WAS is like that, as well. Secondly, he describes in loving detail the cool rides his characters drive. Thirdly, he uses the D.C. locales, where I live, as his settings. This brisk crime novel also involves a couple of organized crime thugs, something not too often seen in D.C. crime novels. Otherwise, the dialogue is on par, the pace is fine, and the characters feel like the real deal. What else can I possibly add? This is a very entertaining read.
Profile Image for Larry H.
2,440 reviews29.4k followers
February 9, 2012
George Pelecanos, you are easily one of my most favorite crime writers around. I seriously don't understand why you aren't more of a household name given how talented you are. Your ability to evoke a specific time and place, to create tremendously memorable characters set you apart from so many of your peers, and I've found myself getting attached to a number of your protagonists over the years. Just promise me you'll continue writing this type of book, because you're at your best when the action crackles and some of your characters are up to no good.

It's 1972 in Washington, D.C. The city is finally getting settled again after the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King. Derek Strange has recently set up shop as a private investigator after leaving the police force, and he is hired by a young woman to find a piece of costume jewelry she claims has sentimental value. His investigation connects him with a former police colleague, Frank "Hound Dog" Vaughn, who is looking into the brazen murder of a local drug addict. They both discover they're looking for the same person, "Red Fury" Jones, so named because of his hair color and the make of getaway car his girlfriend, who runs a house of prostitution, drives. As Red becomes bolder and bolder, his crime spree leads Vaughn and Strange across the entire city and brings them into contact with the Baltimore organized crime syndicate. Red knows how it all will end, and he doesn't care, but Vaughn is determined to nab his suspect, and Strange wants to get to the bottom of his own case, and determine why the missing ring is so important to his client.

What It Was is a great example of George Pelecanos' writing at its best. He draws you right into the plot and gets you completely acclimated into 1970s-era Washington—the clothes, the cars, the lawlessness, and the still-slightly-uneasy relationship between the races. While there's not a tremendous amount of suspense in the book, the action and the many layers of plot he has created keep you plowing through the chapters. Honestly, if there's anything wrong with this book, it's that at 246 pages, it's a little too short. But it's great to get a glimpse of a younger Derek Strange, who was the main character in a number of Pelecanos' earlier books. This is a great addition to his already impressive roster of books. And if you've never read anything by Pelecanos before, and you're a fan of crime thrillers, get going. Pick one up now. Trust me.
Profile Image for Marty Fried.
936 reviews90 followers
February 3, 2019
Great background if you're into this series. Tells about when Strange started out as a PI.

I really get to feel like a part of the life in DC for a black man, without having to be black - or live in DC. It's really different, but the books seem authentic from what I know of the black culture. At the time of this story (just before Nixon and Watergate), I was working at the main Oakland, CA post office, mostly with blacks. I actually enjoyed getting to know the wide variety of black people there, and got along well with everyone.

Profile Image for robin friedman.
1,769 reviews203 followers
December 22, 2021
The Magic Ring

"What it Was" (2012) by George Pelecanos is a detective story with a noir flavor set in Washington, D.C. in 1972. The story it tells is recounted in a bar many years later by one of the primary characters, Derek Strange, an investigator who appears in other Pelecanos books. Derek Strange and his friend and former police department colleague, Detective Frank Vaughn, known on the street as "hound dog" are on the trail of a series of murders and robberies featuring a flamboyant criminal, Red "Fury" Jones, and his woman, "Coco" who runs a brothel. With the exception of Vaughn, most of the characters in the story are African American. Racial tension in Washington, D.C. forms an important subplot.

The story revolves around the fate of a ring, which appears to be a cheap piece of costume jewelry. It disappears during Red Jones' first murder in the book. A young woman hires Strange to find it, claiming it is a valuable family heirloom. The ring and the murders bring Strange and Vaughn to work together as the ring goes through many hands and events before its fate and ownership are determined.

The novel is short but it is cluttered with characters and incidents, probably too many. The story is full of violence and twists but it remains somewhat slow and predictable. The appeal of this book lies in the writing and the background. Pelacanos writes in a no-nonsense hard-boiled, street-smart style attuned to the patterns of speech in 1970's D.C. The writing is direct and effective. Characters and voicing tend to change many times within each chapter. The effect of the frequent back and forth in voice tends to be overdone and to slow down the pace of the story.

The book captures the feel of the underside of Washington, D.C. in the early 1970s, about two years before I moved to the city. Pelecanos shows a wonderfully attuned eye and ear in the ambience and details. Much of the story is set in the "U" Street corridor which had been destroyed by riots following the death of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968. Pelecanos offers gritty portrayals of 14th street which at the time was the lively center of Washington, D.C.'s prostitution trade. He describes the long Georgia Avenue corridor, the Carter Barron Amphitheater, the remote, violence-filled sections of Northeast D.C., as well as more middle-class areas such as upper Connecticut Avenue. Pelecanos' descriptive talents are unerring as he shows the cafes, the cheap brothels, bars, streets, fish houses, movie theaters, and people from the D.C. of the time. The characterizations are effective, as are the descriptions of cars, music, clothes, cigarettes and other ornamentation of daily life.

The city Pelecanos depicts has little in common with the powerful, political Washington, D.C. The beginning Watergate scandal gets described briefly and specifically but only as a foil to life on the streets. Although I saw it from the outside, I remember Pelecanos' Washington, D.C. well. Pelacanos' gritty portrayal of the seamy parts of Washington, D.C. that most people will find unfamiliar make this book worth reading .

Robin Friedman
Profile Image for Erin.
9 reviews13 followers
January 26, 2012
Much of the attention around George Pelecanos’ new book, WHAT IT WAS, has focused on the quite brilliant way that the good folks at Mulholland Books are publishing and marketing it. In case you haven’t read about it, instead of the standard e-book and hardcover release followed months later by a paperback edition, WHAT IT WAS is available now as a 99-cent e-book, a trade paperback for $9.99, or a limited-edition, signed and slip-cased hardcover for $35.

I think this is quite brilliant, but the reality is that it wouldn’t matter a whit if the story contained on the paper or e-pages wasn’t up to snuff. Luckily for us all, WHAT IS WAS is one of Pelecanos’ best, second only to RIGHT AS RAIN in my estimation.

WHAT IT WAS is set in 1972. Derek Strange has hung out his private investigator shingle. His former partner, Frank Vaughn, is still on the force. Red “Fury” Jones, a villain for the ages, is wreaking havoc in Washington DC, which Pelecanos brings to life in a manner that makes the reader quite certain she was actually there.

Many have called WHAT IT WAS noir, and I’m sure the label fits, but for me, it’s much more than noir. Derek Strange has been a favorite character for years and for him to remain surprising and engaging is testament to Pelecanos’ awesome storytelling prowess. Pelecanos obviously respects his setting, character and stories because he shortchanges none of them. Even the ancillary characters—like Red’s girlfriend and sidekick or Strange’s mistress or mom—are so vivid that I wouldn’t have been surprised to have any one of them knock on my front door (ok, a little surprised, but you know what I mean).

Pelecanos has always been unapologetic in his storytelling, both in his books and on TV shows “The Wire” and “Treme.” WHAT IT WAS continues this tradition, and I hope he never gives this up. WHAT IT WAS doesn’t flinch at violence or human frailty; on the contrary, it celebrates both.

This will sound frivolous to some, but I have to also commend Pelecanos for telling a complete and complex tale in less than 300 pages. In a world where publishers put authors under contract to deliver stories that run to 400 pages and more even when they don’t need to be, WHAT IT WAS is exactly the length it needs to be. It includes not one extraneous word, scene or plot element.

If you’ve never read Pelecanos, WHAT IT WAS is a fine place to start. While the books featuring Derek Strange are a series, they’re not bound by elements of surprise that make reading them in order necessary.

Come this time next year, I expect to have seen WHAT IT WAS on plenty of Best of 2012 lists. I know it will be on mine. It is blisteringly good.
Profile Image for Steve.
784 reviews218 followers
September 27, 2012
Solid crime novel featuring, once again, private investigator Derek Strange. Generally, I've enjoyed the novels in the series, but have always felt they were a bit uneven. On top of that, I've had trouble connecting with Strange. But that changes here. In What it Was, the reader encounters Strange as he's just starting out. My reservations about the character, what makes him tick, were pretty much answered in this novel.

The story itself is standard stuff. A local badass, "Red Fury," kills a pathetic heroin addict (a "taster"), and takes a piece of cheap jewelry -- a ring. The whole ring thing struck me as weak, until the end. I liked the way Pelecanos turned that lame device into something pretty cool. Anyway, back to "Red." Red also takes the Mob's heroin, and as a result bad men from Jersey come to town. On top of that, an aging homicide detective, Frank Vaughn (also a bad ass, who did some dark quality time on Okinawa), is hunting for Red. Everybody is looking for Red. You can see, a mile away, how all the players are converging for the final shootout. But what elevates the story is Pelecanos's attention to period detail (clothes, music, cars, dialogue, early 70s descriptions of DC). On the music alone, I kept bouncing over to Youtube to listen to some of these golden oldies. I thought things thinned out a bit as the story came to an end, but it's one fast and entertaining read.
Profile Image for Ed [Redacted].
233 reviews24 followers
June 19, 2012
This book was one hell of a lot of fun. It was like a well written Shaft movie or something. Set in 1972 and chronicling the story of Red "Fury" Jones, Frank "Hound Dog" Vaughn, Derek "About The Only Guy With No Nickname" Strange and a cast of excellent and believable characters. Vaughn and Strange chase Red as he runs through a wild crime spree in Washington DC.

Pelecanos captures the slang, fashion and attitude of the early 70's urban culture about as well as anyone I've read in this fast paced and enjoyable novel. Well worth the time and bread, you dig?
Profile Image for Michael.
836 reviews614 followers
April 17, 2013
Derek Strange left the police department to set up shop as a private investigator while his old partner Frank “Hound Dog” Vaughn remained. When a young woman comes to Strange to help find a costume ring, it leads him right to Vaughn’s active homicide case. Now both of them are working together trying to find a ruthless killer known as Red Fury.

George Pelecanos is best known as a writer for The Wire; I will admit I’ve not watched the show in its entirety but I thought I will try one of his books. I picked up this book because it was accessible but soon found out it was book five in a series about Derek Strange & Frank Vaughn. Luckily enough this read like a standalone and still felt like I learnt enough about the two to enjoy this book.

This book reminds me of those 1970’s pulp movies, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel with that same feel. You have the typical cool, badass African American who goes around kicking ass and then you have his former partner who is as hard-boiled as they come but since he is a cop he does things by the book. This is almost like a buddy cop situation but because they are not working together it doesn’t turn into anything formulaic.

Pelecanos packs a lot of detail into this novel; the cars, the clothes and the action packed plot but most of all the music. I cannot help but wonder if George Pelecanos was obsessed with music at the time of writing this book, because it really came through. Not only does he mention songs, albums and artists but who was playing what instrument and a little review of the song according to the character. Never have I read such an obsession with music since American Psycho.

I’m not sure if Strange had an afro but I can’t imagine him any other way with his bellbottom pants; it really was an image driven novel. I think with all the work George Pelecanos did with TV helped him world build and paint a picture. There were some clunky parts of the book but nothing really that would detract from the enjoyment of Pelecanos hard-boiled style.

I want to read more books in this series, as well as try out some of his other standalone novels. While this was book five, it was enough to convince me to explore more of this author’s catalogue, but I can’t help but wonder if reading this series out of order was one of my major problems with the book. I hear many people talking about The Night Gardener, so maybe that will be my next step into George Pelecanos style.

This review originally appeared on my blog; http://literary-exploration.com/2013/...
Profile Image for Michael.
84 reviews16 followers
February 13, 2013
Do you remember getting letters in the mail? Handwritten letters, words like precious gems, filling up sheets of paper with thoughts from friends, family, pen-pals. Do you remember the joy you had anticipating their arrival as well as the comfort you got in reading them? A new George Pelecanos novel is like getting a letter from a loved one and for me, his books are comfort food for the eyes and the imagination.

What It Was is the fifth novel in the Derek Strange/Terry Quinn series. This time Pelecanos flashes us back to 1972 where a young Strange, fresh off the police force and four months into his new career as a private investigator, agrees to a job looking for a client’s lost ring. From there the story picks up speed quickly and takes off and follows the usual Pelecanos formula until the showdown climax you can’t wait for, but regret reaching because it means you’ve finished another cherished letter and have to go back to waiting for more.

Please don’t misinterpret my use of the word “formula” to mean that George Pelecanos is in any way conventional or unimaginative or predictable. Pelecanos is an absolute master of modern crime fiction and by “the usual Pelecanos formula” I mean he gives us stories rich in atmosphere, character and feel and he makes us think about life issues beyond his story. Regardless of what or who he’s writing about, for those couple of hundred pages, we’re right there and we're smelling the smells and tasting the tastes and feeling the bullets.

This isn't much of a review but that’s all I have to say about the book. If you haven’t read What It Was yet, go and read it. If you haven’t read any of the books in the Derek Strange/Terry Quinn series then I envy you being able to start.
Profile Image for Adele Symonds.
Author 2 books34 followers
March 14, 2012
This novels 2 central characters – Vaughn and Strange are fairly well written but the characterisation of the minor characters could have been better. The plot was difficult to follow because I was being distracted from it by all the long, rambling descriptions.
There were too many descriptions of cars and too much general description, it felt like it was there to fill out the book rather than to build the characters. I prefer descriptions of characters to be a little more subtle than just reading large paragraphs of what they look like and what they are wearing. There was also too much reference made to what the characters are listening to on car radios and jukeboxes which does nothing to advance the plot.
Generally it was very slow paced.
Dialogue was written almost in dialect, I found this to be too much as it makes the book hard going and put me off the characters. I felt that Pelecanos could have stated the accent that his characters spoke and just dropped a few slang words into the dialogue to reinforce this rather than lacing all the dialogue with ‘gang speak’.
I found myself checking the percentage of the book I had left to read because I wanted to get it over with, do the review and move onto something better.
I will not be actively seeking out other books by this author.
2 Stars.
498 reviews27 followers
February 15, 2012
"Once upon a time...in the Summer of 1972..."

This is the perfect bedtime story for those of us who like detectives, street hoodlums, and soul music. Pelecanos (whose writing I've enjoyed and admired for many years) is at the height of his powers as he gives us a fable of a brief murder spree by the outlaw Red "Fury" Jones.

The book features a 30-years-younger version of Pelecanos' PI character, Derek Strange, as he is just getting his agency off the ground. He is on a routine case...the hunt for a missing ring...but that is just for starters.

As is usual, Pelecanos steeps the story with detailed and loving descriptions of the cars people drove and the soundtrack of their lives. He also portays real life in the D.C. "ghetto", "white flight" and racial division of the era.

This is not a who-dun-it or a why-dun-it. This is just What It Was. Go along for the ride.


Profile Image for Steve.
683 reviews34 followers
March 28, 2017
It is 1972. Red "Fury" Jones is cutting a swath of death through D.C., seemingly unconcerned about what will happen to him. Police detective Vaughan and private detective Strange end up working together to try to find and stop Red. The author excels in capturing the cars, styles and music of the era. Immensely fun.
Profile Image for Larry Bassett.
1,383 reviews293 followers
November 26, 2012
I have had this book on my shelf for nine months. Although most of my books are bought used, this one I got from Barnes & Noble new immediately when it was published because George Pelecanos has been one of my favorite authors for nearly fifteen years and I wanted to be able to read this book right away. It sat on my shelf unread because shortly after I bought it, Pelecanos slipped in my estimation. I have read every one of his books but all of a sudden I began to experience him as a three rather than four star author. But now I see that it is about time for a new book to come out so it occurs to me that I should finally read the last one. This is the fifth in the Derek Strange series and the other four all got four stars from me. This book is like going home to me: I haven’t been there in a while and I am looking forward to it. Today is Thanksgiving 2012 so I guess that feeling fits! I will see if Pelecanos regains his four star status.

I was initially attracted to George Pelecanos because the setting for his novels is the metro DC area. I lived in Silver Spring, one of the common locales in his books and I liked the familiarity with the streets and businesses. I also had a passing acquaintance with Pelecanos because my daughter and his son went to the same day care center. He had not made his splash into writing yet. He was just a guy I chatted with as we ate pizza and sat on little chairs at the occasional parents’ night at Children’s Community Preschool/Daycare Center. We didn’t stay in touch.

This book is about Red “Fury” Jones:
After coming to the city from West Virginia at an early age, Jones had grown up in one of D.C,’s infamous alley dwellings, below the poverty line. No father in his life, ever, with huskers in and out the spot, taking the place of one. A mother who worked domestic when she could. Half brothers and sisters he barely knew or kept track of. Twenty-five dollars a month rent, and his mother could rarely come up with it. All of them hungry, all of the time. Being poor in that extreme way, Jones felt that nothing after could cut too deep. Take what you want, take no man’s shit. No police can intimidate you, no sentence will enslave you, no cell can contain your mind.

Red is the bad guy. Very early in the book, he kills someone who owes him drug money. And then he takes a gaudy ring and our hero, Derek Strange, is hired to recover that worthless costume bauble. But this is a book of characters with mixed personalities. For example, the hit man with scruples:
He’d have to do it a different way. Go up to the house, get in, and get it done quick. Better yet, coax the man outside. Most likely, Cochner’s wife was in that house, too. That was a problem for Bowman. He wasn’t one of those robot killers, what they called ice men. He took out the target, not the loved ones. He’d never finished a woman or a kid. He went to church on Sundays, sometimes. There was work he wouldn’t do.

Life for characters in a Pelecanos book is complicated often with a mix of the good and the bad. Vaughn is a detective with the MPD. Strange is an ex-cop and a current PI. They team up and they kill some bad guys. And then they do what all gunfighters do: they walk into the sunset:
Strange and Stefanos walked out onto Georgia Avenue. Strange buttoned his leather blazer and nodded toward his black Cadillac, parked on the street.
“Let’s go Greek. The clock ticks.”
“What’s your hurry?” said Stefanos.
Strange squinted against the dying light. “We’ve got a case.”

This is a short, enjoyable book. You could read it in a day if you didn’t have much else to do.

Nice to have Pelecanos back to four stars.
Profile Image for Nigel Bird.
Author 40 books70 followers
July 27, 2012
Given that George Pelecanos has been one of my long-time favourite authors, it came as quite a surprise to me to realise that I haven’t read anything by him for a couple of years. I have no doubt that this has something to do with my patterns of reading since I bought my kindle. I suspect I’ve become used to being attracted to cheaper options. ‘What It Was’ came as a great reminder that some things are just worth paying a little extra for.

Even the author’s note was interesting, a brief explanation of the way the book came about. It reveals something of his researching and how the bigger stories aren’t always the ones to catch the attention.

Last time I did have a Pelecanos in my hand, I was with Nick Stefanos. He’s in the opening here, too, so I was immediately on familiar territory, though Stefanos only makes a cameo appearance in this book – it’s his drinking partner, Strange, who is telling the story.
It’s set in 1972 and paints a picture of a familiar yet faraway place.
Red ‘Fury’ Jones is based loosely upon the criminal Raymond ‘Cadillac’ Smith. Jones has had a hard life and, as a consequence, is a hard man, his philosophy: ‘Take what you want. Take no man’s sh#t. No police can intimidate you, no sentence will enslave you, no cell can contain your mind.’
He’s out to make a name for himself and to make sure that people remember him when he’s gone. He’s already half-way there – ‘Legend was, an ambitious young dude had tried to shank him in jail and the blade had broken in Red’s chest. It wasn’t a legend.’

To nurture the legend he’s creating, Red knocks off a herion taster. That’s when he gets the information he needs to move up the food-chain and also when homicide detective ‘Hangdog’ Vaughn (‘Dude got no quit’) gets involved. It’s also when Strange is employed to trace a gold ring that went missing during the killing.

From there on the book follows the different players – hookers, police, mobsters and killers – as their lives converge.

There are the trademark references to music throughout the book and cares are described in ways that even got me interested (not an easy thing to achieve). All the characters feel very real – they’re all flawed and capable of extreme acts. I was struck by the way he shows the impact of war on three different generations of Americans – it’s subtle but raises powerful questions.

The multiple perspective is handled brilliantly as Pelacanos always does and the plot is fully satisfying in the way that the grip is held all the way through and that the climax plays out with an honest feel without offering any hard-and-fast solutions. The story has been ‘What It Was’, just the way life is.

It was great to be back and I shan’t be leaving it for so long before my return.
Profile Image for Ensiform.
1,337 reviews134 followers
July 3, 2013
The fifth Derek Strange novel. In this, he relates a tale from 1972, when the 1968 riots were still fresh in everyone’s minds. Strange, just starting out in his PI business, is hired to find a stolen ring. This puts him on the trail of a notorious killer known as “Red Fury” Jones and his madam girlfriend. Strange works alongside a tenacious white detective, Vaughn (a relic of the old days of cop work, but hiding a heart of gold under that un-PC exterior), to track down Jones as he grows ever bolder; meanwhile two vicious Italian syndicate boys follow the same trail to get the money back that Jones stole.

I’m not quite as taken with this book as I was with the previous two Pelecanos crime books I’ve read. It’s a decent police procedural, with a cast of cold killers, scared junkies, small-time hoods, and informers that add color to crime stories. And I enjoyed the complexities of Vaughn’s character. But the “masculine” tone of the prose chafed me a bit – like Pelecanos was trying a bit too hard to emulate Hemingway’s ‘simple declarative sentences.” Someone would take out a pack of cigarettes, take out a cigarette, and light it. Or get out a record, place it on the turntable, and drop the stylus in the groove. That step-by-step narration grows thin easily. Also, while Pelecanos is highly skilled in depicting the practicalities and realities of seedy underworlds, his main deficiency as a writer – the sameness of his heroes’ tastes – is on full display here. Everything is mother worship, big tits and ass, manly “needs” and muscular, sexy funk music. A preference for slender women is likened to pedophilia, a preference for non-spicy food is dismissed as sissy. There’s nothing wrong with having a hero or two with specific tastes and habits, but not everyone worth knowing in the book should share them. At bottom, an author’s true calling is to find empathy in all that is human: humani nil a me alienum puto.
Profile Image for Rayroy.
210 reviews81 followers
August 20, 2013
from the Outro
"You know what happened to Frank Wills, that young security guard who foiled the Watergate burglary?"
"No".
"He died penniless, in a house with no electricity or running water. But then he done a year's time for shoplifting an ink pen. And all those reporters who got famous, all those politicians who made their names on the scandal , all those motherfukers who were doing the dirt, with their million-dollar book deals and radio shows..."

A Crime Novel that's was pretty damn good, I'll be reading more by George Pelecanos soon, and I'm someone that much prefers Post Modern Fiction, Metafiction, Contemporary Fiction and Southern Gothic over Crime and Noir.
Profile Image for Ezra.
2 reviews1 follower
February 2, 2012
No suprises here. If you like Pelecanos you'll like this. Steeped in 1970s urban culture, the plot revolves around Red “Fury” Jones, a fearless crazed criminal on a murder spree who is being tracked down by ex-cop Derek Strange and current cop Frank Vaughn. It reads like the plot for a Blackploitation movie and, as I've found with other Pelecanos' books, the 70s-era phrasings and descriptions of cars, music, and clothes can be a bit repetitive and awkward. I wished there was more plot and less style in this book.
Profile Image for Charity.
294 reviews27 followers
January 19, 2012
Lacks the depth and electricity of his other works. There is little social critique, what is there feels rehashed and thrown in. What makes Derek Strange so compelling as a character is almost completely lacking in this text. This felt like a dashed off popcorn read and that is disappointing in comparison to his other books in the Strange series. It's fun and consumable, but not much more than that.
Profile Image for Brian R.
12 reviews
February 21, 2015
I only gave this 4/5, I found some of the deductions and "inklings" made by several of the characters to be a stretch, but I really liked this story, I love the Derek Strange character, and I'll eventually get through every Pelecanos book.
Profile Image for Douglas Lord.
710 reviews25 followers
November 8, 2017
Derek Strange, a private dick in 1972 Washington, D.C, is chasing bad guy Red Fury, who’s making the move from mere lowlife to local drug-dealing kingpin. Does that sound good to you? Then trust me, go forth and read it. Thing is, I get fined by the book reviewers union if I squander the 200-word allotment, so: Pelicanos makes old-school fun with a propulsive plot featuring multiple teams‚ the cops, the mafia, even some hookers‚ all, for various reasons, chasing Fury. With no master plan, Red is burning his bridges faster than Patton’s Third Army ripping through Avranches. Loving little details of the ’70s are expertly interwoven: Strange gets $8 an hour, wears slacks, and says, "Dig it." Still, if the action is hot and the details are chunky, the characters are shallow. These are doers, not thinkers, primal and unsophisticated. You’re not surprised that a cop and his paramour put a June Christy record on the console stereo and fixed a couple of cocktails; "They had some laughs and fucked like animals in her bed." It’s easy to see how Pelicanos’s work translates to the small screen (The Wire, Treme). So‚ why should dudes read it? It’s easy to read with lots of action and violence. What’s not to like?

Find reviews of books for men at Books for Dudes, Books for Dudes, the online reader's advisory column for men from Library Journal. Copyright Library Journal.
Profile Image for K.
881 reviews9 followers
March 20, 2019
What It Was, my first foray with the Derek Strange series, was a nostalgic read. Seems the author and I grew up in the same time period and 1972, where the bulk of this story takes place, is a sweet spot for cars and tunes. Aside from the trip down memory lane, Pelecanos has rendered a pretty neat action novel.

Derek Strange is a fairly basic character, an ex-DC cop who has gone the PI route. But his former partner, an aging detective called Frank “Hound Dog” Vaughn, is a different story. This is a guy with some hard bark on him, and just the type of cop to chase down some seriously pathological bad guys who kill with glee. The primary adversary is known as “Red Fury,” a riff on the car his main squeeze drives, dontcha know?

The story unwinds two tracks that inevitably become intertwined— finding and arresting a murderer (Frank’s job) and recovering a stolen ring (Derek’s task). When their paths eventually cross, the former partners unofficially team up for mutual gains.

The pace, sense of place and, in particular, of time (‘72), are all well drawn and add to the book’s appeal. If you weren’t around until after the 70’s, most of Pelecanos’ era-specific references will have little impact on you. But, if you wore bellbottoms, Stacks, polyester shirts, grooved on Mavis or Curtis or Roberta & Donny (no, not Osmond- the soul brother Donny), then this one holds special appeal over and above the solid storyline.
What It Was is what it is and what it will be— can you dig it?
Profile Image for Chuck.
394 reviews10 followers
July 14, 2019
Strange says "Let's go, Greek. The clock ticks."
"What's your hurry? said Stefanos.
Strange squinted against the dying light. "We've got a case."
Profile Image for Richard Knight.
Author 6 books55 followers
August 13, 2019
A fine book that I hope isn't the final Derek Strange novel. The story concerns Red Fury, a character alluded to in The Night Gardener. The story is told in flashback and it's a worthy one, but it isn't fitting as a swan song to the character. Overall, a good book, but it feels like kind of an afterthought, to be honest.
Profile Image for Craig Pittman.
Author 9 books166 followers
March 2, 2012
I'm a big fan of George Pelecanos, and really looked forward to reading this one because he's so meticulous about recreating various eras in D.C. and because it marked a reappearance of his private eye character Derek Strange. That said, it was a little bit of a letdown. Although Strange is a player in the story, he's not the main focus. Instead that role goes to a weaker character, a white homicide cop named "Hound Dog" Vaughn. And while the villain, "Red" Fury, is interesting to watch as he wreaks havoc across the city's underworld, Pelecanos never explores or explains what his motivation was for starting this war that he knows he can't win. That said, he still does a bang-up job of putting the reader into the 1970s setting, with references to the movies, songs, cars, dress styles and attitudes of that time period. And I like the framing device of Strange, now in his 60s, telling the story to another of Pelecanos' recurring characters, Nick Stefanos, as they wait in a bar for the right time to go see a witness in an unrelated case. There's also a nice shout out to Frank Wills, the security guard to discovered the Watergate burglary but later died penniless. Bottom line: If you haven't read any Pelecanos before, don't start here. Instead I'd recommend starting with "The Sweet Forever" (which is set in the 1980s) or "Drama City" (a more contemporary book) or even his last book, "The Cut," all of which feature tighter plotting and more resonant characters.
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