What It Was by George Pelecanos – Book Review

What it was book coverDerek Strange is a newly minted private investigator when a young woman comes in asking for his help finding a cheap ring. As it turns out, the ring is connected to the murder of an acquaintance by a gangster name Red Fury (so named for the car that his girlfriend drives). During Strange’s  inquiries into the whereabouts of the ring, he hooks up with his former partner at the Baltimore Police Department, Frank Vaughn, a man whose views of black society and the world in general are outdated, and not in line with emerging 1970’s culture. The two ex-partners  end up more entwined in the case than they planned,  and tension between rival parties escalates and the body count continues to rise.

Pelecanos is often an astute observer of human behavior, relationships and language, but I had mixed feelings on this novel. Something about the distance of the voice in the storytelling, and maybe my own unfamiliarity with 1970’s, made Strange, Vaughn and the various villains come off as little more than caricatures – even as the story was engaging enough for me to want to see how it culminated at the end. This is not Pelecanos’s first outing with these characters, so it is possible that I am missing something in not having experienced the fullness of their history together, but still this short but full story fell flat to me in comparison with his other novels.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 The Gods of Gotham   Giveaway

Review copy.


  1. I am sorry this one didn’t quite work for you. I think the 1970s atmosphere would be fun but as a whole I’m not sure I am that interested in the story.

    • All of the characters were colorful. Some aspects seemed a bit outlandish and I just didn’t know eneough about the time period to be a good judge of how realistic it would be. I will read Pelecanos again, though.

    • The 180 pages definitely felt like a full book, I just had mixed feeling on the characters and story. But I did want to see how it turned out, so there is that!

  2. Martha @ Hey, I want to read that

    Sorry this one didn’t work for you, I”m guessing it wouldn’t work for me either. I’m not a big 70s fan.

  3. Bob

    I loved What it Was but I think it was due to the great performance by the narrator JD Jackson, and the fact that Hard Revolution, the direct prequel to What It Was is my favorite Pelecanos book and Derek Strange is one of my all time favorite characters.

    • I can definitely see how this would have been very enjoyable with a good narrator. Maybe with this particular book, it is best to have read other of the Strange books. I don’t know that much about the ’70’s so it was hard for me to speak to the way it ws portrayed here.

  4. I absolutely loved The Night Gardener, but have heard mixed things about this one and The Cut. So now I am wondering if Gardener was a fluke? I’d like to think not.

    • THE TURNAROUND is good as well, Sandy. I want to read more by him, but I think I might not like the Strange books if this is indicative of the series.

  5. Beth F

    Bummer that this didn’t live up to Pelecanos’s potential.

    • It happens. He has so many books, and I may not have had the context to fully enjoy this one.

  6. I just brought this book home after enjoying my first Pelecanos book, The Cut, but did not know the characters are part of a series.

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