If you’ve never read George Pelecanos, his new novel The Cut is a good place to start. It features a new Pelecanos character, Spero Lucas, but the setting is the same: Washington, D.C., where Pelecanos has set all seventeen of his crime novels. (NPR recently profiled Pelecanos’s D.C. in its Crime In The City series.) Lucas is a young Iraq War veteran turned private investigator whose cut, no matter the job, is forty percent. A drug dealer approaches Lucas about recovering stolen merchandise. Lucas is a smooth operator — he conducts himself, even as a civilian, with military precision — but his willingness to deal with risky clientele soon endanger his life, and the lives of those closest to him.
Pelecanos is a pleasure to read for many reasons. One is his sense of place. Esquire famously called him “the poet laureate of the D.C. crime world.” His D.C. doesn’t showcase memorials or tourist attractions. He writes about “the three-quarters of Washington D.C. that tourists never see,” as Lee Child put it. (Pelecanos gives the reader a wink in his new book when Lucas drives past the office front of another Pelecanos character, Derek Strange.)
Another is his mastery of the form. Pelecanos has written for both “The Wire” and “Treme,” and not only does he get the technical aspects of the crime novel right — the details, conflict, pacing and payoff — he elevates the material with his sure-footed handling of racial dynamics. (Most of Pelecanos’s books feature black-and-white partners, mixed-race marriages or multi-racial families, and sometimes all three.) Plus he delivers fantastic dialogue, right up there with Richard Price (another “Wire” alum).
Pelecanos also makes his books breathe with culture. His characters are always listening to a specific genre of music, wearing a certain label of clothing, driving a make and model of car he’ll describe to you in detail. A little of this can go a long way, and at times he can go overboard. The cumulative effect of all these details, however, is to paint a very vivid picture, not just of where these characters are and what they’re doing, but of what’s happening at this moment in time in this city and the world beyond it. His books work on both a large scale and an intimate one too. When he tells you what song is playing on the jukebox in the bar where two characters are drinking, you can practically hear the crack! of the pool table break even though he doesn’t put that part on the page.
My personal favorite in the Pelecanos canon remains The Night Gardener, a stand-alone, but you really can’t go wrong with any of his books. That’s one more reason to recommend him: his consistency. Like Derek Strange and Spero Lucas, you know you can count on him.