Thursday, July 5, 2012

What It Was

by George Pelecanos

The fifth Derek Strange novel.  In this, he relates a tale from 1972, when the 1968 riots were still fresh in everyone’s minds.  Strange, just starting out in his PI business, is hired to find a stolen ring.  This puts him on the trail of a notorious killer known as “Red Fury” Jones and his madam girlfriend.  Strange works alongside a tenacious white detective, Vaughn (a relic of the old days of cop work, but hiding a heart of gold under that un-PC exterior), to track down Jones as he grows ever bolder; meanwhile two vicious Italian syndicate boys follow the same trail to get the money back that Jones stole.

I’m not quite as taken with this book as I was with the previous two Pelecanos crime books I’ve read.  It’s a decent police procedural, with a cast of cold killers, scared junkies, small-time hoods, and informers that add color to crime stories.  And I enjoyed the complexities of Vaughn’s character.  But the “masculine” tone of the prose chafed me a bit – like Pelecanos was trying a bit too hard to emulate Hemingway’s ‘simple declarative sentences.”  Someone would take out a pack of cigarettes, take out a cigarette, and light it.  Or get out a record, place it on the turntable, and drop the stylus in the groove.  That step-by-step narration grows thin easily.  Also, while Pelecanos is highly skilled in depicting the practicalities and realities of seedy underworlds, his main deficiency as a writer – the sameness of his heroes’ tastes – is on full display here.  Everything is mother worship, big tits and ass, manly “needs” and muscular, sexy funk music.  A preference for slender women is likened to pedophilia, a preference for non-spicy food is dismissed as sissy.  There’s nothing wrong with having a hero or two with specific tastes and habits, but not everyone worth knowing in the book should share them.   At bottom, an author’s true calling is to find empathy in all that is human: humani nil a me alienum puto. 

three stars

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