If after a few pages Lucas begins to seem familiar, it’s because he has two distinguished ancestors: Philip Marlowe, the heroic anti-hero of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles novels, and Travis McGee, the knight-errant of John D. MacDonald’s South Florida novels. Like Marlowe and McGee, Lucas is tough on the outside and tender on the inside, though he shows his tender side only reluctantly. He dislikes violence but will resort to it if pressed; he pursues truth and justice even when no apparent financial reward awaits him; and like another great fictional hero, C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower, he is “a man whom women loved easily” but, unlike Hornblower, not one for whom marriage holds much attraction, at least not so far.
All in all he is very good company, especially for readers who know Washington and are beguiled by its many complexities. Lucas seems to have wandered every block in the city — especially some of its most dangerous blocks — and to have eaten at all of its tastiest restaurants and drunk at all of its neighborhood bars. He listens “to reggae, ska, dub, and guitar-based rock and bar bands” and seems to know any song that any of them has recorded. He grew up in suburban Maryland, in a family of “two Greek-American adults, two black kids, two white kids, and various yellow mutts.” His father is dead — he misses him every waking and dreaming moment — and he visits his mother frequently, often with his brother Leo, who teaches English at Cardozo, “the high school up on 13th Street with the fine view of the city below,” a school where Pelecanos has taught.
Pelecanos is rather coy about the racial identities of Lucas’s siblings, both biological and adopted, but it doesn’t take sophisticated deductive gifts for one to conclude that Spero is white and Leo is African American. It also doesn’t matter. For all the divisions and difficulties of its race relations, Washington is a decidedly, irrevocably multi-racial city, and in all his novels Pelecanos has always portrayed this aspect of it with remarkable sensitivity and lack of sentimentality.
“The Cut” begins quietly. Lucas is hired by Tom Petersen, a criminal defense attorney in private practice, to look into the case of a couple of kids arrested for swiping a fancy car. The evidence Lucas produces gets the kids off and also gets him into the good graces of the father of one, Anwan Hawkins, a noted drug dealer “up on trafficking charges at the moment” and residing “in the D.C. Jail”; he is likely to remind readers in the District of the much-publicized Rayful Edmond III, now living somewhere unknown to the public after becoming a government informer. Lucas is summoned into his presence and told about 30-pound packages of “product” — marijuana — with a value of $130,000 that have mysteriously vanished. Hawkins wants them back and is prepared to pay Lucas’s 40-percent fee.