Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Night Gardener

by George Pelecanos

The body of a black teen is found with one shot to the head in a community garden. MPD homicide detective Gus Ramone’s own teen son knew the boy, and Ramone is driven to solve the case. Two ex-cops – one who quit under morals charges and one a retired legend – think this murder might be related to a series of killings twenty years earlier in which the victims were all left in gardens, and take it upon themselves to investigate, though they have no authority. In a subplot, a young banger, inspired by the legend of ‘70s bad guy Red Fury (from the Pelecanos novel What it Was), wants to go on a spree that will have people saying his name for years to come – but he may have stolen from the wrong bad guys.

This is another hard-boiled, gritty, seamy-side-of-the-city crime novel from an established master. Engaging, suspenseful, and intricate, this is a page-turner from beginning to end. Phrases I’ve used to sing the praises of Pelecanos’ unflinching prose in earlier novels also apply here: he “creates a grim tableau of the modern city and its culture of poverty, crime, and drugs;” he “delivers the seedy underbelly of DC without rose-colored glasses or glorification;” he “knows DC streets, restaurant culture, the way criminals move and talk, types of weapons, and all the other little details that bring characters and plots to life.” I repeat myself because with every book, he proves again that he can deliver the human side of crime: the problems in the school system that foster cycles of ignorance and violence, the culture of expensive clothes and hyper-masculinity where appearance and reputation are king; the economic disparity; the undercurrent of race resentment, always bubbling near the surface. His minor characters are richly drawn and have an air of tragedy because Pelecanos knows that even drug addicts and gangsters have dreams and goals. In this book, Pelecanos tones down his irritating foible of defining masculinity in his work, though the stupid line “he checked out her backside, because he was a man” (which I found needless in Soul Circus) is here as well, and his nearly defensive preference for voluptuous women results in cartoonishly predictable body shapes for characters, as if this were a Disney cartoon: curvy women, whether wife or whore, have a lust for life and good heart, and slim hips are a near-sure sign that that woman is a humorless prude. I know this is nitpicking; I just continue to find it odd that an author who can bring empathy to killers and corrupt police can’t seem to shake his neurosis about manliness and body shape.

four stars

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