The crime novelist and screenwriter George Pelecanos, whose new book is “The Man Who Came Uptown,” would want Gladys Knight to write his life story: “Music heads will get that one.”
What books are on your nightstand?
“A Lucky Man,” an extraordinary short story collection by Jamel Brinkley; “The Lonely Witness,” by William Boyle; and “Memphis Rent Party,” by Robert Gordon.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
Riding the subway, sitting in a bar or on a park bench with a paperback in hand. Basically, taking a journey with a book.
What’s your favorite book of all time?
“True Grit,” by Charles Portis.
Which books got you hooked on crime fiction?
I’ll list the authors from the syllabus of the crime fiction class (ENGL 379X) I took as a senior at the University of Maryland: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, John D. MacDonald, Ross Macdonald, Mickey Spillane, John le Carré, Elmore Leonard.
Who’s your favorite fictional detective? And the best villain?
The detective would be C. W. Sughrue, from James Crumley’s “The Last Good Kiss.” Jim Crumley lit up a whole generation of crime writers. The villain, hands down, is Junior Allen, from John D. MacDonald’s classic “The Deep Blue Good-by.”
What makes for a good thriller?
Honesty. The same thing that makes any kind of novel a triumph.
What kinds of stories are you drawn to? And what do you steer clear of?
I like fiction set in the South and I’m a fan of literary westerns. Can’t get my head around sci-fi or fantasy. I’m not putting those genres down, it’s just that I’m not built for them.
What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
I collect and read as many books about music and film as I do fiction.
Who is your favorite overlooked or underappreciated writer?
David Goodis is largely forgotten today. He was a genuine noir writer whose troubled psyche leapt off the page. I would add Charles Willeford, a singular, radical voice in fiction, to the list.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
I read The Washington Post every day from a very young age. Reading the newspaper taught me how to organize my thoughts on the page. Meaning, it taught me how to write.
Favorite childhood literary character or hero?
I don’t have one. I wasn’t much of a fiction reader when I was a kid or in my teens. I was, however, a movie freak. Which is to say that I’m more influenced by Sam Peckinpah, Robert Aldrich and Sergio Leone than I am by Harper Lee.
What’s the last book you recommended to a member of your family?
Can I pick more than one? Frederick Exley’s “A Fan’s Notes”; “Northline,” by Willy Vlautin; “Hard Rain Falling,” by Don Carpenter; “Stoner,” by John Williams; and “Lost in the City,” by Edward P. Jones.
What’s the best book you ever received as a gift?
A family friend and D.C. public-school teacher, Estelle Petrulakis, gave me a book called “The Movies,” a pictorial history of film by Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer, when I was a child. I’ve wanted to be a storyteller and filmmaker ever since.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
You’re joking, right?
What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I struggle with some of the classics, but once I start in on a book, I tend to finish it.
If you were to write something besides crime novels, what would you write?
I write about myriad subjects and settings in my screen work, so I’m not inclined to make a significant change for my novels. Crime is the engine in my books, but all of my novels are about the people of Washington, D.C. That’s my life’s work.
Whom would you choose to write your life story?
Gladys Knight. Music heads will get that one.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Christopher Hitchens, Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama. Hitchens and Tony were brilliant conversationalists and could hold court with authority. As for President Obama, I’d invite him just to shake his hand.
What book do you think everybody should read before they die?
“Light Years,” by James Salter.
What do you plan to read next?
“Some Die Nameless,” by Wallace Stroby. Stroby always delivers.