Right as Rain
George P. Pelecanos
With his eight crime novels set in and around Washington, D.C., George Pelecanos has attained more than just a measure of success. Always a favorite of critics and his fellow crime writers, Pelecanos has in the past few years been elevated by his publisher and the reading public from regional renown to national prominence. Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and Miramax's Harvey Weinstein are reportedly both producing films based on his novels.
Unlike many of the crime novelists who over the past decade have made a name for themselves writing lightweight "tourist mysteries," books set in colorfully offbeat and previously underappreciated cities, Pelecanos uses his considerable knowledge of Washington's recent history to highlight the city's decline over the past 30 years due to drugs, poverty, racism, and alternating cycles of apathy and hostility on the part of city and federal officials. His heroes are survivors who still believe in the elemental of virtues of decency and friendship. In their depictions of urban violence and day-to-day life in one of America's most troubled places, Pelecanos' best novels--my choices are King Suckerman and The Sweet Forever--read more like the kind of trenchant reportage that wins Pulitzers than escapist crime fiction.
At the beginning of his new novel, Right as Rain, Derek Strange, an African-American ex-cop who now owns his own private detective agency, is hired by the mother of a black police officer killed while off-duty by a white colleague. The white officer, Terry Quinn, has been exonerated, but the mother believes that her dead son has been denied justice. Strange meets with Quinn, discovering that he likes him and believes his account of the shooting. Haunted by the incident and the latent racism it exposed, Quinn has retired from the force and now works in a used-book store. Strange asks for Quinn's help in investigating the dead cop's erratic behavior on the night he was killed. Together they uncover a connection between the incident and the activities of a local drug dealer and his extensive network of suppliers and enforcers.
When focusing on Strange and Quinn's tentative, uneasy friendship, Right as Rain radiates real emotional warmth. Both characters are appealingly flawed and genuinely likable. Unfortunately, Pelecanos' attempts to play sociologist are more heavy-handed here than in previous novels. In one of the book's many contrived discussions, the book's unpleasant and uninteresting villains--a white father-and-son drug-dealing team--casually recount the arrival of purer grades of heroin with the gravity of CNBC analysts, seemingly only to edify readers:
For the Colombians, it kills the competition. I'm talkin' about the Asians, who were putting out seven-,10-percent product, and the Mexicans, too. The Colombians upped the purity and lowered the price and now they're gonna own most of the U.S. market. And what this pure shit does, it creates a whole new class of customers.
Such unnatural expository dialogue detracts from the novel's journalistic integrity and literary aspirations, as does the bloody climax that too conveniently brings together and terminates every one of the major characters' narrative arcs. While Pelecanos should be commended for his ongoing chronicle of the social and political ills of a city for which he obviously cares a great deal, his latest effort sacrifices pathos for pedagogy.