THE NIGHT GARDENER
By George Pelecanos
Little, Brown. 375 pp. $24.99
Like the veteran cops and private investigators who populate his fiction, George Pelecanos knows his precinct inside out. His first 13 novels examined life on the streets of his chosen beat -- eastern Washington, D.C. -- with the precision of a crime-scene expert and the compassion of a grief counselor. After reading just a few of his books, even non-residents might feel that the neighborhoods of Southeast, the Georgia Avenue corridor and the "new badlands" of Prince George's County are as familiar as their own backyard.
Pelecanos's latest novel, The Night Gardener, opens literally on this familiar turf: a patch of community vegetable garden in the Greenway section of Washington, where, in 1985, the body of 14-year-old Eve Drake is discovered. The cause of death is a gunshot to the head; there is also evidence of sexual abuse. The hunt for her killer is led by Detective T.C. Cook, known as "The Mission Man" for his relentless, methodical investigatory techniques. Cook quickly determines that Eve is the third in a series of killings known as the Palindrome Murders, so-called because the victims' names are spelled the same backward as forward -- the first two were called Otto and Ava.
After this gripping opening, Pelecanos changes track abruptly, jumping forward 20 years to take the reader beyond the confines of a standard police procedural into a deeper, more evocative realm.
Instead of chronicling Cook's investigations, which never yielded an arrest, the author focuses on two young policemen who were present at the crime scene to perform crowd control. The first is the reliable Gus Ramone, who has gone on to become an Internal Affairs officer and then a homicide detective. He is also a doting father who is trying to raise a rebellious biracial son (Ramone is of Italian ancestry, and his wife is African American). The second officer, the flamboyant Dan "Doc" Holiday, now works as a limousine driver when he isn't boozing and womanizing. Their shared history includes not only that unforgettable night at the crime scene but also Ramone's role several years later in forcing Holiday out of the department for his involvement with a prostitute.
The two men are cast reluctantly back together when Holiday, sleeping off a drinking binge near yet another community garden, discovers the body of a boy named Asa Johnson. Not only is the victim's first name a palindrome, but he was killed with a single shot to the head and bears signs of sexual abuse. He also happens to be an acquaintance of the 14-year-old son of Ramone, who becomes one of the lead detectives on the official investigation. Holiday, sensing that Asa's killing might mark the return of the serial killer, decides to mount his own private investigation, enlisting the aid of the feeble, retired Cook. They soon cross paths with Ramone. The three men form an uneasy alliance, following increasingly twisted clues that lead each of them in unexpected directions.
Although The Night Gardener has its share of page-turning virtues, Pelecanos once again shows himself to have ambitions far beyond simply creating a first-rate thriller. Like Dennis Lehane at his best, Pelecanos is able to obscure the line between genre writing and "serious" fiction. His evocations of the "other" Washington -- geographically proximate but also a world away from K Street, Georgetown and Capitol Hill -- are superb. His capital city is a place of illegal dog fights, garbage-strewn lots and crack houses, a place where citizens wear "Stop Snitchin" t-shirts and the cops refer to the murder of a drug dealer as a "society cleanse." But it is also a place where boys dream of being sports heroes, parents correct their children's grammar, and friends gather on porches for a twilight cocktail. Few other writers working today are able to depict both the lurid realm of street crime and the quiet aspirations of domestic life with such a deft touch.
This is especially true when it comes to Pelecanos's heroes. What ultimately concerns him are the souls of his cops, not their case-closure rate. His three main characters feel compelled to solve Asa's killing for reasons that transcend the job. Ramone is no super-sleuth but a decent, somewhat overwhelmed man whose extraordinary commitment to the case stems from his desire to ease his son's hurt and confusion at the death of a friend. Holiday, meanwhile, sees the investigation as the opportunity to redeem himself from his soul-destroying status of "dirty cop."
Cook, however, is the novel's most poignant character. Slowed by a stroke, he joins the hunt for the murderer to keep faith with a promise he made to the still-warm corpse of Eve Drake 20 years earlier. Although the "Night Gardener" of the title is what the police call her killer (for his habit of dumping his victims in the city's numerous communal vegetable patches), it is the lonely, dignified Cook who proves the novel's true gardener, tending to the memories of young victims most others have forgotten.
Stephen Amidon is the author of "The New City" and "Human Capital."