Monthly Book Review by Ajarn Scott
April 2009

George Pelecanos: (w)rites of retribution and redemption.

The Turnaround

by George Pelecanos, Little Brown 2008, 294 pp.

Drama City

by George Pelecanos, Orion 2005, 291 pp.

Detective or crime fiction can be realistic but is seldom real.  By that I meant that we all know that in real life the bad guys often go unpunished and the good guys don’t always win.  Even in some crime fiction the good suffer and the bad prosper.  I find the latter, though, to be the exception rather than the rule and also to not be as satisfying as a more formulaic rendition, in which the good guy triumphs.  In George Pelecanos’ most recent novels, The Turnaround and Drama City, the good guys do triumph in the end.  But the journey to that triumph is often uncertain and filled with wrong turns and this gives his books more depth even though they follow the formula.  His books contain realistic yet flawed, less than perfect, people who somehow must go through rites of retribution and redemption before his books achieve their resolution.  His characters must earn their happy ending. 

A positive resolution (a “happy ending”) in fiction, especially in crime fiction, is a must.  British Poet W.H. Auden, as quoted by writer Alexander McCall Smith in her recent Wall Street Journal piece titled Lost in Fiction, says “novels in this genre follow a classic pattern: First there is peace, then this peace is shattered by the occurrence of a crime, usually a murder.  This leads to a search for the wrongdoer, his apprehension and punishment, and finally a return to peace.  We need to see this moral balance restored.”  Alexander goes on to say that crime writer P.D. James agrees with Auden’s idea.  Here we have, then, three authors who suggest that the idea of a moral resolution in crime fiction is a major, if not the main, point of the work.  The Turnaround and Drama City demonstrate this idea quite well.

Many of Pelecanos’ books take place in present day Washington, D.C. and revolve around the racial tension present in this environment.  The Turnaround begins in Washington D.C. in the 1970s and the plot centers around three white friends and three black friends.  By the time the first third of the book ends the paths of these two groups of friends cross by chance with disastrous results: the white boys, out partying in a car belonging to one of them, visit the black neighborhood to “play a prank.”  They call out racial epithets while throwing a cherry pie in the face of one of the three black teens they happen to drive by.  They seek to speed away but end up in a dead end street where they are forced to turn around only to discover that the group of black guys has blocked the street.  During the inevitable confrontation, one white guy runs, one (Nick Pappas, the book’s protagonist) is seriously injured and one is shot dead.  Turns out that the three black teens they’ve encountered – two brothers and a friend – have had enough of the racial epithets they have heard hurled at themselves and their families their entire lives and, in the heat of the moment, react perhaps more intensely than they otherwise might have.  The brothers are not bad guys but, by coincidence, one of them happens to be carrying a gun for the first time in his life.  The last two thirds of the book take place in the present and focus on the aftermath of the event.  Lives have been ruined – Nick Pappas carries physical scars from this event on his face.  James Monroe, the brother convicted of the murder of Nick’s friend, has been in and out of prison ever since as has Charles Baker, James’s friend  and the person responsible for the injuries sustained by Nick.  Baker has now decided he is “owed” by the white guys and seeks to extort money first from Pete Whitten, the white guy who ran, and then from Nick.  Baker is involved as well in petty theft and, with two younger men (one black, one white) is dealing drugs.  Ray Monroe, who has not done any prison time since he was never charged with a crime, is seemingly untouched by the incident but is currently worried about his brother James, over whom Baker still has considerable negative influence.

Drama City takes place in present day Washington D.C. as well, with some references to the 1970s since that is also the time in this book that the now adult characters were growing up and making the choices which later shaped their adult lives.  (Pelecanos, it should be noted, describes the 1970s so accurately – right down to the song and music references – that this aspect of his writing creates a feeling of nostalgia for any reader who also grew up during those years.)  Bad choices were made during this time by Lorenzo Brown, who has just gotten out of prison after serving eight years for drug trafficking.  He lives again in his old neighborhood and he is faced every day with seeing some of the same faces, along with newer, younger faces, still living and prospering from lives of crime.  Is he rehabilitated, or will he fall back into his old criminal ways, which, given the environment, would be quite easy.  Rachel Lopez, his probation officer, worries about this more than he does.  But Rachel as problems of her own that involve control, alcohol and sex.  What choices will she make during this story?

Although crime is present, as it must be in what is called “crime” fiction, Pelecanos is more interested in his characters and how they respond to the situations around them.  He develops the characters carefully and the reader ends up caring quite deeply about what will happen to each and every one of them.  But it is not only his characters that are important to Pelecanos.  He is also quite interested in the themes of retribution and redemption, thus following Auden’s idea about the crime genre as mentioned at the beginning of this review.  How Pelecanos sets this up is quite interesting: there is “peace” at the beginning of these books, but it is peace that is fragile and that has occurred often after tragic loss, often a tragedy involving bad choices.  The central characters are flawed, yet human, which is why the reader cares so greatly for them.  Then comes the crisis: evil is introduced in these books and is usually represented by one character, which I came to call “he-who-must-be-killed.”  In The Turnaround it is Charles Baker, in Drama City a young drug dealer named Rico Miller, who is really a complete sociopath.  It is clear to the reader that both of these characters must be destroyed in order to stop them from continuing the spread of really heinous behavior (described in the books in graphic detail).  But who will achieve this retribution and at what cost?  If Lorenzo is the one to go after Rico, then he will not only lose whatever moral redemption he has achieved for his past sins, but he will also be sent back to prison on a parole violation.  Yet he has the motivation – almost the right – to hunt him down after Rico violently attacks Rachel Lopez, who, through her job, has become a good friend of and an inspiration for Lorenzo.  In The Turnaround it falls to either Nick or Ray or even James – who is in the most precarious position of all, having done prison time – to take care of Baker.  Or does it?  It is clear to the reader that somehow, some way, the “bad guys” must lose – in the case of Baker and Miller, this can only be accomplished by killing them – and that the good guys must win.  The moral choices that the central characters must make in dealing with the evil around them is one of the elements of suspense that keeps readers turning the page.  We’re not reading Pelecanos to find out “who-dun-it” but rather to find out “who-gonna-do-something-about-it.” 

Peace is restored quite nicely at the end of these two books and in a way that more than satisfies the reader.  If Pelecanos were less of a writer, one might even say too sentimentally – these books have what we could call “happy endings.”  But with Pelecanos they are happy endings with an edge.  The situations are gritty and realistic, the characters – even the evil ones – well developed and not at all stereotypes.  There’s not a sense of cheerfulness in these books – the end is satisfying but still, in some ways, sad.  Yet the main characters survive and are redeemed.  Pelecanos is able to avoid being overly sentimental while satisfying the readers need for both retribution and redemption while restoring the moral order that Auden claims must be present at the end of book in the “crime” genre.  Pelecanos is also a fast and, in terms of language, easy read – though some of the street slang and 70s nostalgia might be a little challenging for the non-native reader or those of you who were not 17 in 1972, respectively.

Scott Humphries, 22 April 2009 Bangkok