A few years ago a good friend turned me on to the work of a local writer, George Pelecanos. I immediately took to his books for several reasons. He is a local, born and raised in Silver Spring, MD. Because his books are set in and around D.C., I always recognize the references to local places, music, and culture. He always writes about life-long residents of the area and what life is like here for people who aren’t involved in politics.
Most importantly, of course, Pelecanos can write. As my friend says, the man has style to burn; and many critics include him in the newer school of mystery writers (such as Dennis LeHane and James Lee Burke) who deliver all of the goods: great stories with action, humor, and twists; believable characters; meaty (but not too wordy or contrived) prose; and social and spiritual themes.
I just finished Pelecanos’ latest, The Turnaround, and I think it may be his best yet. The story opens in 1972 when three white teenaged boys pull a rather stupid stunt: driving into an all-black D.C. neighborhood, shouting epithets at passersby from their car, and then plan to make a quick getaway. Unfortunately for them, they drive into a cul-de-sac (the “turnaround” of the title) and are trapped by three teenaged boys from the neighborhood. As one might expect, violence ensues; one of the white boys ends up dead, another gets beaten within an inch of his life, and two of the black boys end up in prison.
The story then picks up 35 years later when two of the survivors of the incident encounter each other through a shared interest; their interaction draws in the other survivors of the incident as well. Pelecanos does a great job of showing how the incident affected each person involved with sometimes tragic consequences. He also convincingly shows how these once-cocky kids have grown into (mostly) admirable men and their halting, awkward efforts to lay the past to rest and to try to set a mistake right. Of course, one of the boys has grown up into a thug who sees the chance reunion as an opportunity to settle scores and make a profit. One of Pelecanos’ consistent strengths is his antagonists; though dangerous and cruel, none of them are the type of high IQ super villains one normally gets in a crime novel; they are often as stupid and pathetic as most real-life criminals, which makes them all the more frightening.
There are certain other things one can always expect with Pelecanos: painstaking attention to local and period music (the man practically writes a soundtrack into his novels), a preoccupation with the responsibilities of fatherhood, wrestling with questions of morality and what makes a good man (especially in a sometimes bad time and place), details about the work his characters do for a living, affectionate descriptions of all ethnic cultures (especially Greek culture), and characters trying to find redemption and make up for bad mistakes. Furthermore, he never tries to make his violence cool; it is always shocking and abrupt, and it always has consequences.
I recommend all of his books if you like crime and mystery stories; but I recommend The Turnaround if you like large-scope stories with big themes, and an ending that may even bring a tear to your eye.