With “The Cut,” the 17th book of his remarkably productive and varied career, George Pelecanos sets off on a new direction: a series featuring Spero Lucas, a 29-year-old veteran of the Iraq War who now makes his living as a private investigator of sorts.
“I find things for people,” he says. “I retrieve things that were lost or stolen,” for a fee of 40 percent of their value. He lives in the District of Columbia — “He had the entire second floor of a four-square colonial on the corner of Emerson and Piney Branch Road, in 16th Street Heights . . . in a country-style atmosphere of quiet lanes and alleys that felt bucolic and was only fifteen minutes north of The White House and deep downtown” — and seems to know every square inch of it, no surprise considering that Pelecanos himself is a native of the District who now lives in Silver Spring.
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.
So Lucas finds himself hanging out with Tavon Lynch and Edwin Davis, 20ish youths who are Hawkins’s deliverymen: “They seemed tough enough, but neither of them were thugs, nor did they pretend to be. Lucas imagined they liked girls, fashion, cars, video games, sports except for hockey, and getting their heads up. They were typical urban young men who happened to make their living in the marijuana trade.” It’s worth quoting at length one paragraph about them, because it displays both Pelecanos’s knowledge of the District and its music scene, and his sympathy for these kids:
“They were into watching sports on TV and playing video games, but mostly they loved nightlife. Tavon caught reggae at the Crossroads and dancehall at TNT and Mirage Hall, and hung out with Edwin at the go-go and hip-hop clubs in the city and in Prince George’s County. The IBEX had been shuttered long ago, and so had the Black Hole, but shows were live in places like Legend on Naylor Road, Icon in Waldorf, The Scene, D.C. Star off Bladensburg, and 24. Tavon and Edwin beat their feet to Reaction, TOB, Backyard, Junk Yard, old bands like EU with Sugar Bear at Haydee’s, and up and comers like ABM. They tipped the doormen, the bouncers, and the men guarding the parking lots, and soon they were in the VIP rooms for free and never had to be on the lower floors with those who stood in line. They met a promoter named Princess Lady who got them started on her street team, passing out flyers for a flat fee of thirty dollars a night, then they graduated into real promotion money, creating a guest list for the door that brought in three to five dollars a head. They made up stage names, Young Tay and E-Rolla. They always looked fresh.”
In the course of all this they met Anwan Hawkins and “began to do a little work for him on the side.” In a short time “they were Anwan’s seconds and they let their show business aspirations die.” Now they’re cruising around the District with Lucas in his elderly Jeep Cherokee: “He liked them both. He also felt they were in way over their heads,” as is eventually proved all too correct. A “corrupt officer of the law” enters the picture, the son of a far more corrupt ex-cop who has been dragged by his father into a small but deadly ring of crooks. Bad things happen — of course — and the life of an exceptionally nice Cardozo student is put at risk. Lucas manages to handle everything, but blood is spilled and things end on a note that is closer to irony than happiness.
Pelecanos is by now a known quantity, so most readers will come to “The Cut” aware of what awaits them. This isn’t to say that he writes by formula but that he maintains a remarkably high level of intelligence and style. As has been argued in this space many times in recent years, much of the best fiction now being published in this country is by people who are pigeonholed (and dismissed) as “genre writers.” Among them are Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman, Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, John Grisham . . . and George Pelecanos. At times some of them lapse into the cliches of genre fiction — hard-boiled dialogue, most commonly — and Pelecanos is not without his own lapses, but his novels have more to tell us about the real world in which we actually live than almost all the soft-boiled “fictions” produced these days by our ostensibly “literary” writers.
Pelecanos clearly knows that he is in the business of entertainment, and he goes about it in a thoroughly professional way. But entertainment needn’t be an end in itself. A book that entertains can also enrich, instruct and even enlighten. George Pelecanos’s books do all of that, which is plenty good enough for me.
By George Pelecanos
Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown. 292 pp. $25.99