Spare, clean, accurate storytelling from a crime superhero. But not quite on the money for this reviewer.
George Pelecanos writes for The Wire. You need to pause there, take that on board. Pelecanos writes for The Wire. That’s only the best crime TV series ever. Or is it the best TV series ever, full stop, end of para, end of chapter, end of? (Oh, and if you want a good biographical piece by Pelecanos, then try this article in the Observer. You get a feel for his style too.)
And many of the virtues of The Wire are right here. Dialogue which is so precise, so authentic, so tense with life. It’s unsurpassable. I’m not sure if British slanglacks the variety of American slang. Or if British slang is always somehow taking the piss out of itself, subverting itself even as it takes the stage. But somehow it’s only ever in American fiction that you get this combination of hip, hardness and cool. That, plus authenticity. You never feel that Pelecanos’ characters are talking cool for the sake of it. It feels real, every line.
Now obviously there’s something a little strange about a crime review where the first two paras talks all about how cool the author’s writing is and hasn’t yet said anything about the actual book. Well, yes, and there’s a point there – but let me straighten things out right now. The book is about Spero Lucas. He was a marine. Fought in Iraq, saw some shit, did some shit, is home now, Washington DC. He has a brother and mother whom he loves. He keeps himself fit. Women like him and he beds them fairly easily. He bikes a lot, enjoys the city, likes a beer.
Lucas doesn’t want a regular job. Mostly he does a little private investigation work. Also he finds things that people have lost and he takes a cut – a 40% cut – of the value when he returns it. He likes the work but it can lead to trouble. Especially when one of the packages he needs to retrieve is full of drugs, when some people don’t tell him the full truth, and when no one is quite what they seem. That can lead to trouble. The kind of trouble which might lead to people getting killed.
This is the first in what promises to be a series of Spero Lucas books, and this is a moderately complex hero with plenty of room to grow.
All this is more or less what you want and expect from American urban crime fiction. Trouble is, I can’t help feeling that that’s precisely the issue. We’ve seen this before. Pelecanos delivers a really good version of American urban noir, but the vision itself is decades old. Pelecanos, in fact, carefully references the author who looms over this book: Donald Westerlake writing as Richard Stark, and his terrific series of Parker novels.
Stark wrote in this way: very clean, very spare. The whole thing – plot, dialogue, action – pared down to the efficient minimum, like an automatic weapon being assembled before action. When Stark did it, the writing felt breathtakingly exciting. It could be done like this! You could out-Hemingway Hemingway! You could give a crime hero the moral neutrality and efficiency of a machine!
So I don’t really know why you’d read the Pelecanos rather than the Stark. Sure, the Pelecanos version is more contemporary. It mentions Iraq and Fallujah and contemporary street slang, but still. I loved this book, I read it straight through, but I’m not sure I’d go out and buy the next in the series. I think fiction needs to build on its past. Take the last generation of work and find ways to project it forward, twist the focus and find something new. Good as he certainly is, Pelecanos doesn’t quite do that for me. I’d hoped for more.
If you love American urban noir, you will love this. If you want a masterclass in dialogue and efficient writing, then ditto. If you want to read something you’ve never encountered elsewhere, this ain’t for you.