Over the past two years of lockdowns and social distancing, the crime novelist George Pelecanos had plenty to keep him occupied. He estimates that he has read roughly 200 books. I’ve watched a lot of Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Channel. He worked on writing “We Own This City,” the new HBO mini-series he is producing with his longtime creative partner, David Simon.
But he couldn’t wait to get out of the house. Most writers are a solitary lot; but Pelecanos savors the creative energy of collaboration, and the inspiration he draws from meeting new people. In a recent video call, his eyes lit up when talking about being back on a set, surrounded by actors and technicians making “We Own This City.”
“I like working with these people I consider to be artists,” he said. “The crew, they’re craftsmen, and we are all together, building a world. It’s really interesting to me.”
Based on Justin Fenton’s nonfiction book about Baltimore police corruption, the series is the first Pelecanos has overseen as showrunner, and it returns him to the Baltimore streets and back alleys that provided his entry into the world of television 20 years ago, as a writer on groundbreaking crime epic, “The Wire.”
Simon, who created “The Wire,” suggested that “We Own This City” serves as a sort of coda to that beloved series, which aired on HBO from 2002 to 2008. By the end of “The Wire,” Simon had become alarmed by the level of dysfunction in a police department he had covered closely — and sometimes approvingly — first as a Baltimore Sun reporter and then as a TV writer.
“It was becoming increasingly brutal, with mass incarceration and the obsession with drug stats,” he said in a phone interview. “But even that was a long day’s journey to get to guys literally robbing drug dealers and then putting the drugs back on the street.”
“We Own This City” tracks an elite squad of Baltimore police, led by Jon Bernthal’s Sgt. Wayne Jenkins (based on a real officer), who presents an earnest protect-and-serve image to the public while engaging in increasingly audacious criminal enterprises on the side. But as in “The Wire,” which famously expanded to explore the breakdown of multiple civic institutions, the new series’s ambitions are broader than they might initially seem. “We didn’t want to do a show that was just about dirty cops,” Pelecanos said.
“We saw this as a way to talk about the larger issues of policing in America,” I explained. “We wanted to talk about the why of it: How does a system of policing both allow and encourage corruption?”
On a more personal level, Pelecanos saw “We Own This City” as a chance to reunite some of the crew and writers from “The Wire” one more time, before they all “age out” of being able to spend 12 to 14 hours a day on a set.
This seems to be a concern for the Washington, DC, native, who still lives in the area with his wife of over 35 years, Emily. At 65, Pelecanos still looks youthful, despite some gray in his beard and a bit of weather to his deep, lightly southern-accented voice from him. But more than once over the course of an hourlong interview, he wondered aloud whether he was running out of time to get together with old friends and make television.
This is perhaps owed partly to the fact that Pelecanos got a late start as a TV writer, just as he got a late start as a novelist. He attended the University of Maryland, initially studying then abandoning journalism because “I felt hemmed in by all the rules.” Inspired by what was happening in cinema in the 1970s, Pelecanos transferred to the film department, where “I found my family,” he said.
He also took a class on crime fiction that set him on what would become the defining professional course of his life. After graduation, he got married and worked a series of low-wage jobs to pay the bills while pursuing his passion for detectives and mysteries, trying to learn how to be a novelist. “I read like two novels a week for 10 years, trying to figure it out,” Pelecanos said.
“I guess you could say I was adrift,” he added. “But while I can’t claim that I knew it at the time, all the bars I was working in and the kitchens and the sales floors — all that stuff gave me a hell of a lot of material that I continue to mine.”
At age 31, as the 1980s wound down, Pelecanos quit his job and got to work on his first novel, “A Firing Offense,” which introduced his amateur detective character Nick Stefanos. “I was into the punk movement here in DC” Pelecanos said. “Those guys were making art and they didn’t go to Juilliard. Why can’t I write a book?
He sent the manuscript, unsolicited, to New York publishing houses. An editor at St. Martin’s Press found it in the slush pile. The novel was released in 1991, and Pelecanos was on his way.
He wrote two more books featuring Stefanos and he created other recurring characters, including the private investigators Derek Strange and Spero Lucas. He started attracting more critical attention by the end of the 1990s thanks to his “DC Quartet” series, which told loosely connected stories tracing the lives and legacies of a handful of fictional locals across the second half of the 20th century.
Pelecanos’s books are known for their tight plotting, colorful dialogue and rich characterizations — as well as for their wealth of details about the locations, cars, sports, food, music and movies that define his Washington. While crimes and mysteries drive the story, he’s generally more interested in drawing pictures than solving puzzles.
In 2002, Pelecanos joined the writers’ room for “The Wire” during the first season — Simon was a fan of the author’s work and they traveled in some of the same social circles. Simon said the two writers were in sync “from the very first moment we met.”
“We were both thinking with the same mind about what was happening to cities,” he said. “Whether it was Baltimore or DC, we were chasing the same stuff.”
The two men’s skills provided complementary. Simon often approached the show’s narratives about labor and crime from a journalist’s point of view, while Pelecanos thinks more like a storyteller.
“I’ve always admired George’s ability to find the dramatic,” Simon said. “We kept giving him the penultimate episodes of ‘The Wire’ seasons, where there would be a dramatic death. In some respects, that was more the grist for a novelist.”
Even as he was coming into his own as an author, Pelecanos had never lost his desire to be a filmmaker. But “the Sidney Lumet films that I love so much are not being made as movies anymore,” he said. “They’re being made as television.”
So Pelecanos continued to work with Simon and HBO after “The Wire” ended, first on “Treme” and then “The Deuce.” (“We’ve done so many hours of television together, we communicate in sentence fragments,” Simon said.) With “We Own This City,” the usual dynamic in their partnership has flipped, with Pelecanos becoming what Simon called “first among equals.”
The project reached both men in a roundabout way. Simon read Fenton’s articles in The Baltimore Sun about the city police department’s Gun Trace Task Force, and how some of its celebrated officers had been secretly planting evidence and skimming cash. Simon suggested to Fenton that he turn his investigative reporting into a book; and then HBO offered Pelecanos the chance to adapt that book and be the primary showrunner for the first time.
Pelecanos accepted the offer on the condition that he could bring in Simon and their frequent co-producer Nina Kostroff Noble. (“She doesn’t get enough credit,” Pelecanos said.) As they did with “The Wire,” Simon, Pelecanos and their cast and crew ventured into the Baltimore streets to listen to the people — the police included — and to tell their stories.
“You learn a city when you do these shows,” Pelecanos said. “I’ve been places in Baltimore that most Baltimoreans have never been and will never go.”
Bernthal, the series’s star, was struck by Pelecanos’s investment. “George was on set literally every second of every single day,” Bernthal said in a phone interview. “This clearly was enormously important to him.”
Bernthal added that Pelecanos’s intense attention to detail extended to all corners of the production, from the deeply descriptive stage directions in the scripts to the makes and models of the cars in each scene. (Simon recalled that he received “a quintessential George Pelecanos note” during sound-mixing on “We Own This City,” when his partner complained that one particular car’s engine sounded “too high-performance.”)
There’s a reason for that meticulousness. Pelecanos said, “I sweat as much blood writing a script as I do writing a novel. A lot of novelists don’t. A lot of novelists don’t make it as screenwriters because of that, and also because they don’t really like working with people.”
Pelecanos is still wrapping up postproduction on “We Own This City,” and he has plenty lined up afterward. He has been developing an HBO adaptation of the John D. MacDonald novel “The Last One Left” with his friend and fellow novelist Megan Abbott (“Dare Me”). He said he would also like to get back to his film school roots and give directing a shot. (He directed one segment of the 2019 anthology film “DC Noir,” based on his own stories.) His three children are all grown — two of them work in the movie and TV business, while the third manages a kennel. So he has the time to get more done, and he plans to take advantage of it.
“I love that feeling of getting out of the van at seven in the morning and there’s this whole world of people working,” he said. “It’s fantastic, man, it really is.”