I’m home again and sleepless, after having flown the redeye back east from Seattle. Got into Dulles at six in the morning to change planes, and realized that I was too awake to sleep away the time to New England, and too sleepy to read anything academic. I found an open bookstore in the airport, and browsed dazedly backwards through the alphabetic shelves. Nothing, nothing, nothing: I was disappointed to find that Dulles, a DC-area airport, had no George Pelecanos titles, because Pelecanos is one of the absolute best crime writers working in the genre, and it helps as well that his writing is so concretely grounded in the DC area, where I grew up. I would say that Pelecanos is a guilty pleasure, but there’s nothing guilty about the pleasure I get from his books, his verisimilitude, his skillful rendering of places I know, his grasp of the way that Washington, DC embodies so many of the racial and racist conflicts that go to the heart of American culture.
For those who don’t know: Washington, DC has more citizens than the state of Wyoming, yet is forbidden from having any sort of voting congressional representation, because the city is predominantly African-American and Democratic, and Senate Republicans block any attempt to put two more seats into the Senate. So the citizens of DC have no vote in Congress, and hence the slogan on their license plates: “Washington, DC: Taxation Without Representation.”
Anyway: my mom, who lived in Silver Spring, Maryland, and ran the Silver Spring library, introduced me to Pelecanos, who also lives in Silver Spring. For my birthday, she gave me a copy he’d signed of Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go, and I was hooked. Even if you don’t like crime writing, he’s as fine a writer as you’ll find, with his attention to nuance and setting, and the moral ambiguities of his characters.
But, well, yeah: the airport didn’t have any of his books. So I scanned up the shelves until I got to ‘C’, and there was Bernard Cornwell and his Richard Sharpe series. My dad loves the prolific Cornwell, and I’ve often given my dad Cornwell novels twice a year, one for his birthday, one for Christmas. Cornwell writes well-researched historical fiction, and while his characters are more cardboardy good-guy bad-guy than Pelecanos, it’s still rollicking good fun, and a hell of a lot better than the godawful Tom Clancy. The Sharpe series details the career of Richard Sharpe, an enlisted English rifleman who receives a battlefield promotion to officer’s rank in the early part of the nineteenth century, and as you might guess, it finds its termination at Waterloo. Sharpe encounters detestable superior officers, gets laid a lot, and helps win battles, all with supreme historical verisimilitude, and like I said, it’s great fun. So I picked up Sharpe’s Eagle in a $4 TPB edition at the airport, and had devoured it by the time I got home.
Maybe I should set myself a reward system: for each dissertation chapter I finish, I get to blow a day on a Sharpe novel. Sound reasonable?