There was a rumor going around that George Pelecanos was done with crime fiction. I, for one, am glad he put that rumor soundly away with the writing of The Cut , the first novel in the Spero Lucas (pronounced Spee-row) series. Whether it was the Derek Strange and Terry Quinn novels or stand alones such as Drama City from 2005 Pelecanos brings a certain poetry, a certain literary touch to the crime fiction genre.
The Cut is no exception. Pelecanos understands the genre like Monet understood paint and landscape. He instinctively knows which clichés, which ‘norms’ of the genre will work and which to avoid to maintain that literary height. First, the ones he uses and uses oh, so well; Spero Lucas is, like many protagonists of crime fiction, a war veteran. He served as a Marine in Iraq and was an obvious man of action choosing to be the first in the door at ‘clearing houses’ in the streets of Fallujah. Secondly, like Sam Spade or Philip Marlow, Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder or Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, Spero is a loner.
He also maintains that ambiguous place between the cops and the criminals and has his own set of values based in common sense and not writ in stone laws. And probably most important, Pelecanos’ subject matter is very socially aware and pertinent in making some social issues a part of the back story i.e. a feeling of detachment of returning vets, how disabled vets get lost in society, the complicated racial relations of our nations capital, which in and of itself is a microcosm of the nation as a whole. Even marijuana laws and the duplicity and corruption of law enforcement lends itself to make the story more than realistic.
After returning from Iraq, Spero wasn’t drawn to college not being able to see himself wearing a suit and tie or bound to a desk and office. He drifted into investigative work employing a keen sense of observation that allowed him to survive the war. He writes and diagrams everything he sees in a moleskin note book or takes endless photos with his iPhone – the new gun for the 21st century detective.
He also does ‘side jobs’ finding lost or stolen property that the official authorities wouldn’t bother to look for or retrieve for the owners. Oft time the owners won’t even report these things because they in themselves may be illegal – unreported income, or a drug stash for instance. He preforms this for the arbitrarily arrived at fee of 40% of the value. Hence the title, The Cut.
The clichés he avoids are, endless, senseless violence that only show how tough the tough guy hero is. Spero comes off as more a thinking mans tough guy with his minute analysis of everything from a street to a crime scene to a legal problem.Yet, there is this quiet sense of menace underneath the skin. And almost a recklessness in his approach at times.
He is also a very good reader of character. The author avoids the obvious cliché of too cute dialog. In fact I, who loves the one liners, cynicism and sarcasm of Phillip Marlow, was pleasantly amazed that there is no attempt of that forced elements in the book. Instead, the dialog not only drives the character development but the story and plot.
And, if nailing all the other story elements isn’t enough, Pelecanos’ gives a sense of place, Washington DC, that is superb. He takes you through alleys, and down streets, observes buildings, architecture, row houses and school yards, history and the seasons in detail and makes it endlessly interesting. It’s a side of the city you don’t see often in fiction. It’s not a DC of movers and shakers and thousand dollar suits and limos. It’s a city diverse in it’s racial make up, rich in it small bars, night clubs and restaurants. It’s a city of the homeless living in the shadows of our greatest monuments to a promised land. In short, he gives the city to average everyday people. The politicians just work there.
A lot of the action and story takes place within sight of Cardozo High School, a school known as Central before Brown vs. Board of Education and after was renamed to Cardozo and became an all-black high school. When it was Central it boasted of graduating J. Edgar Hoover. As Cardozo it graduated Marvin Gaye and Maury Wills. Spero’s brother teaches there, as does the author on occasion. It’s this kind of detail that breathes life into Pelecanos’ writing and into The Cut.
The story line for this first entry into what we can only hope is a long series has Spero finishing a job for a lawyer he works for on a regular basis. Through his observation of the street scene and neighborhood where a couple of black teenagers were arrested for auto theft he discovers that the police had to be lying in their report about what they witnessed to give them probable cause to apprehend the kids, who had ditched the car. This evidence is at best, proof of racial profiling by the police and at worst evidence of a general conspiracy by the police. It gets the charges dropped.
One of the kids father turns out to be a somewhat high level marijuana dealer who is in jail awaiting his own date before the judge.
Anwan Hawkins has a problem. As he awaits trafficking charges in the DC jail, he is still running his marijuana business by proxy through two very young but seemingly trustworthy street kids. He has a sweet deal set up as he is the only one who knows the identity of his supplier and he is FedExing the pot to anonymous houses that are occupied by innocent people. The timing is such that Anwan has his people look for addresses where the occupant isn’t home during delivery times. The addresses chosen are on quiet streets and it is unlikely that anyone will report suspicious activity since the FedEx drivers are watched and the packages picked up off the porch within moments of being delivered.
Here’s the problem. Some one is grabbing the packages of pot before Anwan’s lieutenants can pick them up. He has ‘lost’ two packages, roughly $130,000 per package. Forty percent means to net Spero around $140,000. Spero lays out for Anwan that he won’t participate in any kind of retaliation and Anwan makes it clear he is only interested in recovering the product or the cash. Further, he wants the cash delivered to his ex-wife. Anwan puts Spero in touch with his seconds on the street.
They’re pot dealers, but basically good kids, early twenties and doing what will make the buck now instead of struggling through colleges where they will have to fight an up hill fight. They also seem to be willing to follow the lead of Anwan, no violence, none of the gangster shoot ‘em up, and no hard drugs.
But some things just don’t add up for Spero as he gets to know intimately the streets where the pot packages were stolen. The residents of the street, their habits, where their kids go to school – same place his brother teaches – and the route of the FedEx driver. He even gets to observe the cop that patrols the neighborhood. As Spero learns these details, we get a glimpse of his life. His veteran friends who he employs on a limited basis to help further his knowledge of the area, his mixed race adopted family, especially with his brother, the teacher. And his love life as he explores a young mans fantasy come true in his easy attraction of various women.
As Spero starts to feel frustration in not being able to get closer to the thieves, he starts to question his ability to do this job as a profession, but then a third package is stolen and Anwan’s lieutenants are found murdered execution style.
Spero follows this only remaining lead and soon comes to suspect a conspiracy that runs deeper than your average drug rip off. And it becomes clear that it could endanger those close to him. His brother, his mother, his various dates and romantic interests, even those he has taken an interest in during the investigation. Then one night an attempt is made on Spero’s life and as he zeros in on those he suspects, he must distance himself from those who could possibly help him.
What Pelecanos’ has done here is to fashion a first class crime story that stands head and shoulders above the genre and contains all the right elements to be considered literary fiction as well as popular fiction. Then he wraps it up as the opening of a series that should keep any reader ecstatic for years to come. It’s a masters hand at work here, and a master that not only knows the craft of writing but the art of life in the heart of America’s capital.
Copyright © 2011 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved
Article first published as Book Review: The Cut by George Pelecanos on Blogcritics.