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September 18, 2006

George Pelecanos namechecks Joe

In the Guardian UK  We’re big Pelecanos fans. Read his books if you don’t already. Plus, he’s one of the writers on the best TV show in the history of the world - The Wire.

Under the influence

George Pelecanos
Friday September 15, 2006

In the sublime High as a Kite, a cut from the effortlessly melodic new Pernice Brothers record, Live a Little, Joe Pernice sings: “We wore pictures of Strummer/ Fell over ourselves all summer.” Pernice, a musician, poet, and the author of a poignant fiction memoir loosely connected to the Smiths’ Meat is Murder, thanks me, Jonathan Coe and Nick Hornby in the liner notes, but, as is the case with most rock artists, chooses to deliver a shout-out to a band (the Clash) rather than a writer in one of his songs. Of course, being a fan of Joe’s work, I am flattered to be mentioned at all. But you do have to wonder why so many of today’s crime novelists openly and repeatedly name-check their favourite musicians in their books while those same musicians, obviously well-read, keep the direct references to writers out of their titles and lyrics? Crime novelists of a certain generation have been unashamedly inspired by the whole of popular culture. Curtis Mayfield, Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, Robin Trower, the Replacements, Don Siegel, Robert Aldrich, Iceberg Slim, Elvis Costello, John Ford, Miles Davis, Graham Parker, Martin Scorsese, and many others have had a tremendous influence on what I do. Punk rock itself convinced me to try and become a writer; if those untrained, unwashed amateurs could pick up guitars and make vital music, then why couldn’t I, equally untrained and unwashed, write a book?

None of my peers denies the influence of rock, soul, funk, jazz, cinema, or pulp/noir fiction on their work. The energy of Dennis Lehane’s beloved Stones hurtles the reader through the pages of his Kenzie/Genarro books; one can almost hear the driving intro to Monkey Man over the build-up to one of his apocalyptic gundowns. Lush, Art Pepper-style jazz is the mood juice that fuels the melancholic, driven ethos of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch. On the other side of the pond (your side), music is a character in the novels of Ian Rankin, Mark Billingham, John Harvey, and Welsh dynamo John Williams. With new-generation UK crime fiction practitioners like Cathi Unsworth, the spirit of punk is married to the liquid chaos of old-school P-Funk and pulses throughout the work. So where is the love from the music side?

Sure, Dylan and Lou Reed (to whom I once dedicated a novel, back in my rash youth) have called out writers in their songs, but they tend to mention dead poets rather than those scribes still walking among us. In the 1980s, the influence of Chandler, Hammett, and especially Jim Thompson were strongly present in the story-songs of bands like the Dream Syndicate and Green on Red. But, to my knowledge, these folks referenced no authors in their lyrics. Meanwhile, bands continued to record tributes to their brethren in the music, film, and art world. When legendary DC-based punk band Fugazi decided to write a song celebrating an artist renegade, they chose John Cassavetes. Hey, I’m a Cassavetes fan, too. But why not a sonic valentine to, say, anarchic crime novelist Charles Willeford, or the seriously revolutionary Chester Himes?

Ever check out one of those celebrity “what I’m reading” lists? The queried actor/model throws out titles like Mathematics and the Art of Chi. Or when they admit to reading a crime novel, it is the inevitable Japanese or Swedish author translated to the English. As in, yes, it’s a mystery, but it has been translated. It’s cerebral. When all along you know that said actor/model has the new Martina Cole on his or her bedside night-stand.

I guess it’s the same with musicians. It’s smart to sing about Rimbaud, but not so cool to croon on some middle-aged Greek American dude sitting in a room, writing about guns, whiskey, cigarettes, and breasts. I mean, sitting in a room, Creating Crime Fiction Literature.

So ignore us, songwriters, if you must. We will keep on showing you the love in our crime novels. We’re proud to be fans of your work. Which reminds me, I’ve got to get back to the new Pernice Brothers record. That line about Joe Strummer? It’s a killer hook, and it has become deeply embedded in my head.

The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos is published by Orion. John Harris is away

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

Joyce @ 8:36 am