You can’t judge a book by its cover, but how about what’s written on it? Since The Way Home in 2009, George Pelecanos’ jackets have promoted him not as Washington’s premier crime novelist, but as someone who helped make a TV show about Baltimore: He is the award-winning writer/producer of The Wire. (The most prestigious trophy on his mantel, arguably, is a shared Edgar for his writing on that show.) The tag makes good business sense, given the show’s commercial and critical success, but it diminishes his status as a novelist in favor of his role as a cog in a collaborative entertainment.
The Martini Shot, the bracing and witty novella that closes Pelecanos’ first collection of stories, is a sly consideration of this mud-wrestling match between art and commerce. Its narrator, Victor, is a writer-producer on a cable-TV cop show set in Louisiana, “a state that offered significant tax credits to film productions.” (Pelecanos was a producer on the HBO show Treme, set in New Orleans.) Victor sees his life on the set as a never-ending, soul-wearying parade of moral and creative compromises. Whiny actors agitate to get their lines increased or improved, producers tinker with the show’s integrity to improve ratings, and relationships, like the one Victor pursues with the show’s art director, are hopelessly arbitrary. All of which has made Victor cynical: “The network execs had asked for a scene in their script notes to make our show more ‘socially relevant and responsible’ (read: they were hoping for an Emmy nomination).”
What Pelecanos ingeniously understands about this milieu is that it’s perfect for noir: A film set is an in-between state between reality and fantasy, where shady things happen and get resolved outside the usual rules of justice and morality. In this case, the shady thing is the murder of a crew member whose sideline as the on-set pot dealer got him in over his head. That crime yanks Victor out of his ad-hoc existence, but he uses everything he has learned as a professional liar to bring closure to the case. When a pair of detectives show up to interview Victor, Pelecanos renders their exchange as screenplay dialogue, the better to show just how much Victor is fibbing to protect his interests.
The Pelecanos hero you root for is always the one who recognizes the virtue of authentic labor, and the message of The Martini Shot is that the TV life, however fun, is essentially plastic and unsustainable. “If it happened on location, it didn’t happen,” Victor thinks early on. So the vigilante role he assumes in the story’s climax doesn’t just lend itself to an enthralling action sequence, though it does that. It’s also symbolic of Victor’s efforts to escape a life of prop guns and makeup and do something with real-world consequences. Not that everybody else understands the truth-seeking urge: Once he has returned from his mission, his temporary girlfriend asks him, “What was it like? Was it a movie?”
The Martini Shot is such an inventive study of deception and fakery — one of Pelecanos’ best works, at any length — that you’d be forgiven for skipping straight to it. It has taken Pelecanos almost two decades to produce enough short stories to fill a slim collection, and on the evidence of the seven other stories, he treats the form more as a sketchbook for ideas than as a destination in itself. Chosen, for instance, a lagniappe added to the e-book of The Cut, isn’t much more than a background story about Spero Lucas, the Iraq-vet hero of his most recent novels. (It’s not dissimilar, actually, from the “bibles” that TV writers use to define a show’s characters.)
Pelecanos needs a broad canvas to do his work, which is to use crime and the streets of D.C. to explore big themes of racial divides, masculinity and broken social institutions. In the short form, he mostly restricts himself to crime and the streets, and the chief attraction of these stories is his experiments with setting. When You’re Hungry transfers his sensibility to Brazil, while The Dead Their Eyes Implore Us — a slender tale that has the feel of a DVD extra to his 1996 historical crime novel, The Big Blowdown — takes place in the District in 1933, with a Greek immigrant newly arrived in America.
The relative weakness of these stories is surprising, given that Pelecanos is adept at the clipped and precise observations that make for great short fiction. In Plastic Paddy, a story about an ’80s cocaine deal gone bad in Wheaton, Maryland, he fully evokes his title character in one sentence: “When Paddy leaned over the table to do his lines, his four-leaf clover pendant fell out of his shirt and hung suspended between the zippers of his Members Only jacket.” The line contains everything you need to know about the man. Or would want to.
Mark Athitakis reviewed this book for The Washington Post.