What It Was is a crime story set in Washington, D.C. in 1972, one that stars a private investigator and a homicide detective who become entangled in the same case: a bloody crime spree carried out over one hot summer by ruthless and fearless killer Robert "Red Fury" Jones. It's 1972 in Washington, D.C., and former cop Derek Strange is now a private investigator, though one with existing contacts on the police force, such as veteran homicide detective Frank Vaughn. Strange's latest job – finding a woman's missing ring – ends up tying in to Vaughn's latest case: the murder of a drug addict named Bobby Odum by hardened and utterly fearless killer Red Fury, a man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, and who intends for his name to go down in legend before his eventual violent end.
The Bonnie to Red's Clyde comes in the form of Coco Watkins, a brothel madam utterly devoted to her man, wherever it may lead her, and as Red cuts a swathe of violence through Washington, D.C., Coco remains at his side. Red also receives assistance from long-time criminal accomplice Andre. After his murder of Odum, Red sets his sights on bigger fish, seeing an opportunity to make some real money by ripping off some local higher-ranking crime figures while continuing to make a name for himself along the way.
As Red's body count rises throughout one swelteringly hot summer, Vaughn closes in on his prey while Strange does the same, each determined to finish what he started. Even as they focus on their respective investigations, they continue with their personal lives, Strange being a loving son to his mother while being unfaithful to his girlfriend, Vaughn carrying on a long-running extramarital affair while struggling to come to terms with the way his city and its people are changing.
One of Red's bold moves – the theft of a large amount of heroin – earns him the wrath of an out-of-town mafia organisation, and two mob thugs are sent to Washington, D.C., to kill him. Eventually, the main players converge when the mob killers locate Red at the same time that Strange and Vaughn – now working together to achieve their common goal – do. A gunfight takes place, leading to the deaths of the hitmen and Andre, and the wounding of Vaughn. Meanwhile, Red and Coco make their escape and finally flee the city.
After relating the immediate aftermath of Red's crime spree and associated violence, and how it has affected Strange and Vaughn and others, the book's final scene – like its opening scene – takes place in the present day and sees the older Strange telling what he knows of the eventual fates of Red Fury and Coco, the former being murdered in prison and the latter being arrested, although Strange knows no more of Coco beyond that.
Best part of story, including ending:
With this book, George Pelecanos has written yet another lean, hard-boiled crime story, one that utilises a number of varying narrators - private investigator, homicide detective, fearless criminal, mob killer, cross-dressing prostitute - to great effect, and which expertly brings to life the time period in which it is set through use of evocative details.
Best scene in story:
The opening scene and closing scene are set in a bar on a rainy afternoon in the present day and act as atmospheric and effective bookends to the main story being told. They also feature a small appearance by Nick Stefanos, the star of Pelecanos' firs three novels and who many fans - myself included - will no doubt be glad to see making a return here beyond a couple of cameos in previous books.
Opinion about the main character:
The two main protagonists, Derek Strange and Frank Vaughn, are interesting and fully fleshed-out characters with both flaws and qualities, and it is this depth of very human characterisation that makes them so interesting to read about.