by George Pelecanos
The third Derek Strange novel. Because of some guilt over the long-buried past, Strange feels obligated to get to the bottom of charges against a drug dealer (Granville Oliver, the same one arrested at the end of Hell To Pay, now facing the death penalty). One brave young woman with a small child is willing to speak up, simply because she doesn’t appreciate being threatened, and Strange tries his best to keep her safe while balancing his new-found happy family life and work. Meanwhile his hot-tempered white partner, Terry Quinn, is happy with his relationship and helping his girlfriend out with a missing girl case, unwilling to do anything that might exonerate Oliver, who is certainly a bad guy.
As usual, Pelecanos creates a grim tableau of the modern city and its culture of poverty, crime, and drugs: hard-eyed, armed young men who kill each other over a slight, and mock anyone and anything that doesn’t fit in their narrow understanding. Much of this book’s tone and background are of a piece with his earlier writing: big-breasted women who never need foreplay, men who are fixated on said breasts, big muscle cars, tape decks, gun culture, the streets of Washington, ethnic eateries. At times, again, Pelecanos’ ultra-macho writing slips into defensiveness, as when he has Strange watch a woman’s ass as she walks off “without guilt,” even though she was a friend, because “he had to,” because he “was a man,” even a happily married one. Or, in a debate about guns, he has a character who is for banning handguns in DC qualify his position with, “I’m a man. I like the way guns feel in my hand” – as if, in either of these passages, he needed to assure his readers that these characters were totally manly hetero men, man. There’s no problem with having Strange watch a woman’s ass, but I question Pelecanos’ apparent need to justify the scene, or justify a character’s political stance, without beating the reader upside the head with their manliness. But that’s just a distracting aside; Pelecanos’ gritty city streets are compelling, and he certainly knows how to throw the reader a curveball – no one is bulletproof.