Five chapters into George Pelecanos’s second novel about Spero Lucas, a veteran of the Iraq war who lives in the District and works as a private investigator, Lucas makes one of his regular visits to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda. He “had too many books in his apartment and he liked to pass them on to the wounded soldiers and marines who had little to do beyond their rehab.” He delivers a variety of genres, including biography and history, but “like most people the recovering veterans enjoyed a good story told with clean, efficient writing, a plot involving a problem to be solved or surmounted, and everyday characters the reader could relate to.” So he takes them novels by the likes of Elmore Leonard and Lawrence Block, but he could just as well take them books by George Pelecanos, which I suspect is the hidden joke behind this passage.
Certainly “The Double” lives up to its author’s definition of “a good story.” Its prose is no-nonsense, its plot is agreeably labyrinthine, and its characters are people one immediately recognizes and likes — or, in a few cases, actively dislikes. But like them or hate them, they all seem real, which has been Pelecanos’s stock in trade through the 19 books he’s published to date, not to mention the God-knows-how-many scripts he’s written for the television series “The Wire” and “Treme.” He’s up there on the top shelf with Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly, whom booksellers and book critics reflexively pigeonhole as “genre writers” yet who have a great deal to tell us about that endlessly interesting subject, the way we live now.
Pelecanos is of particular interest hereabouts because his novels are set in Washington and its suburbs, places about which he has strong opinions. A native of the District, where he was born in 1957 (he now lives in Silver Spring), he has watched closely as the place has changed in recent years and views that change with decidedly mixed feelings. Early in “The Double” he mentions an article in this newspaper that “detailed the noted drop in homicides and higher closure rate under the stewardship of Chief Cathy Lanier,” and he adds that a “cultural shift, a civil servant-based economy mostly immune to the recession, and gentrification had played a role in the city’s resurgence as well.” Later, as Lucas is parking “above Florida Avenue, where the neighborhoods of Bloomingdale, Eckington and LeDroit Park were in the midst of a turnaround that was unlikely and nearly unbelievable to longtime observers of the District’s renaissance,” Pelecanos writes:
“People with money and vision had been buying up row houses here in the past ten, fifteen years, putting down roots alongside longtime residents, and on North Capitol entrepreneurs both home-grown and immigrant had been opening up businesses and retail establishments that were not liquor stores, Chinese Plexiglas palaces, or check-cashing fleece operations. The area was moving in a forward direction, as was the city, a resurgence that started with the administration of Mayor Anthony Williams. . . . With this came negatives as well. Culturally, in Lucas’s lifetime, Washington had been a black city with a Southern feel, but blacks would soon represent less than fifty percent of the population. Chocolate City was not coming back, and neither were generations of locals who had sold their homes, many for a large profit, and moved to [Prince George’s], Charles, and Montgomery counties.”
Like many of us, Lucas/Pelecanos can’t quite decide how he feels about all this: glad to see the city prospering but sad to see longtime African American residents forced out into the less-affluent suburbs. Looking around Park View, off Georgia Avenue and north of Howard University, Lucas sees “whites, blacks, and Hispanics now on the streets, and new coffee shops, bars, restaurants, and condos opening on the Avenue.” Like many of us, he “couldn’t decide if the changes were positive,” and like many of us, he decides: “Maybe it was just a cultural and economic evolution. Neither good nor bad, just different.”
These ruminations occur as Lucas pursues, as is his wont, multiple cases — three, this time. The first, in his capacity as investigator for a defense lawyer, involves a man who may or may not have been unjustly accused of the murder of a woman he was seeing. The second involves his off-hours activity as a private eye who helps people recover something they’ve lost in one way or another, his fee being 40 percent of its value; readers of John D. Macdonald’s much-loved Travis McGee novels will find themselves in familiar territory here. The third has to do with the murder of a girl at Cardozo High School who had been one of the favorite students of his brother, a teacher there. Meanwhile he’s ferociously distracted by an ardent love affair with a woman he meets in a bar: “Charlotte Rivers was a bundle of dynamite in a dress. She was smart, accomplished, and funny. She was also married. For now, Lucas didn’t care.”
Of all the characters who make their way through these pages, the one most likely to interest readers is Billy King, a.k.a. Billy Hunter, a hunk of throbbing manhood who has seduced and then traduced by Grace Kinkaid (I’d bet a bundle she owes her surname to a now-defunct downtown eatery), a good-hearted woman who lives in Adams Morgan and, in the words of the bartender who refers Lucas to her, “works for one of those feed-the-children non-profits, even though she has a law degree and could be doing a lot better.” Grace owns a painting called “The Double,” given to her by a deceased uncle. It is by an early-20th-century artist named Loretta Browning, little known in her lifetime but posthumously discovered and now popular; the painting has been assessed at “somewhere in the neighborhood of two hundred thousand dollars.”
Suddenly the painting disappears, and so does Billy, who Grace belatedly realizes is “all kinds of twisted.” The hunt for Billy pulls Lucas into any number of potentially dangerous traps, among them an Internet car-selling scam and a crooks’ safe house in Calvert County, pure rural Maryland just a short drive from the buzz of the District. Billy gives a good impression of being evil incarnate, yet Pelecanos sees something to pity in the roots from which he grew: an unhappy childhood, an injury that wrecked any chance he may have had for a college football career, an almost innocent longing to own a nice boat and cruise placid waters.
Never mind. When at last Lucas tracks Billy down, having first disposed of his two pixilated sidekicks, the action is fast and violent. Lucas squeezes out of it, of course — after all, surely there are sequels down the road — but how he does so and at what cost is well worth the ride, which itself is plenty of fun, if not always good, wholesome fun. As a 15-year resident of the District — and a 35-year employee of two of its newspapers — I’ve watched its evolution with emotions akin to Pelecanos’s, if from a very different perspective, and I agree with the conclusions, however mixed, that he’s drawn. For me the most interesting character in his fiction is the District itself, with its occasionally combustible combination of peoples and cultures, its local affairs much under the thumb of a disdainful and ignorant Congress, its evolution into a place with an indigenous culture not imported from New York or anywhere else, indeed the slow and incomplete dissolution of its inferiority complex vis-a-vis all things New York. From where I sit, Pelecanos gets it all just right, and that he tells a hell of a good story is just very nice icing on a very tasty cake.
By George Pelecanos
Little. Brown. 295 pp. $26