"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Sunday, July 27, 2003

sorry more archiving

Not much white marble in George Pelecanos' gritty Washington

Kevin Wood Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Soul Circus

By George P. Pelecanos

Little, Brown; 352 pp; 24.95 dollars

When most of us think of Washington, the first images that come to mind are of the U.S. Capitol building and the White House, of prosperous middle-aged white men in suits and ties going about the business of running the most powerful nation on earth.

Those familiar with the work of crime writer George P. Pelecanos may have a very different vision of the city. In Soul Circus, his 11th novel set in the roughest neighborhoods of Washington, Pelecanos gives the reader a close look at the world of gangs, guns, poverty and drugs that dominates much of the U.S. capital.

Pelecanos' Washington is a dark, dirty and dangerous place where even ex-cop private eyes like Derek Strange and Terry Quinn walk softly down some streets.

Soul Circus follows directly on the heels of Pelecanos' 2002 bestseller Hell to Pay and the 2001 novel that introduced Strange and Quinn, Right as Rain. Strange, a rock-steady pillar of the African-American community in his mid-fifties, has taken on the younger, hot-headed Irish-American Quinn as a partner in Strange Investigations.

Following up on the events of Hell to Pay, we find the two working for lawyers defending drug kingpin Granville Oliver. Strange has been retained to find the former girlfriend of Oliver's right-hand man, whose testimony can keep him off death row, while Quinn is involved in trying to find the ex-girlfriend of the loser brother of a local street gang leader.

As in his previous work, notably the three novels featuring hard-drinking investigator Nick Stefanos, even the heroes have flaws. The quick-tempered Quinn is unable to back away from the smallest affront and Strange has more than one skeleton in his own closet. While both act heroically on occasion and do their best to do the right thing, their very human weaknesses are what ultimately make the two protagonists sympathetic, realistic characters.

That gift for creating believable, detailed characters extends even to the most minor players in Soul Circus, with characters who pop up in only a few scenes expertly drawn with a minimum of exposition.

Where other authors might supply a quick stereotype or faceless cardboard cutout, even the counterman in the diner and the parents of the kids on the peewee football team Strange coaches have unique identities and distinct faces. Pelecanos has mastered the art of showing us a character through minimal but vivid description, realistic dialogue and believable action rather than long paragraphs of back story and explanation.

While mastering all the conventions of the hardboiled genre, Pelecanos is not a slave to them and manages to make political and philosophical points about race relations, gun control, feminism, masculinity and honesty without it interfering with the readers enjoyment of the story.

Pelecanos clearly argues that the easy availability of firearms is one of the greatest contributing factors to violent crime, even using Nick Stefanos, the hero of three of his earlier books, in a cameo role to drive the point home.

While offering a bleak view of life in the ghettos of Washington, Pelecanos also shows how small acts of decency can make a difference in the world and refuses to fall into the usual trap of having one tough good guy solve all the world's problems with his fists and a gun. Hollywood-style violence without consequences does not exist in the real world and Pelecanos shows how the death of anyone diminishes us all without preaching.

With Soul Circus, Pelecanos should garner the fame he richly deserves and take his place in the pantheon of noir greats alongside Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy.