BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Cut’

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THE CUT
By George Pelecanos
Little, Brown and Co., $25.99, 292 pages

In this, his 17th novel, George Pelecanos proves once again that his knowledge of Washington, D.C., its streets, its neighborhoods and, especially, a certain stratum of its people is unparalleled. Also as usual, he writes like an angel - an angel with dirty hands, but an angel nonetheless.

In “The Cut,” Mr. Pelecanos introduces a new crime-fighter, Spero (conveniently rhymes with “hero”) Lucas - ex-Marine, ex-soldier in Afghanistan and ex-dreamer. Spero has seen too much in his 29 years. When his friends went off to college, he went off to war, where he saw and did things that affected him deeply. As a consequence, in times of crisis, he tends to favor - and to mete out - a rough justice, as opposed to the literal, by-the-rule-book variety.

This sliding scale of situational legality (and morality) bothers his beloved 1-year-older brother, Leo, who goes by the book and makes his living by it as a high school English teacher in the District.

At their core, Spero and Leo are almost twins, which is unusual in that Leo is black and Spero is white. Both were adopted by Van and Eleni Lucas and raised with love. But their elder sister, a lawyer in California, never comes home, and the elder brother, a longtime drug addict, is “in the wind, location currently unknown.” Mr. Pelecanos is making the point that even an abundance of parental love can’t guarantee that some children won’t go bad.

Familial relationships, in both good-guy and bad-guy families, are major themes in “The Cut.” Mr. Pelecanos‘ vision, never strictly black and white to begin with, is maturing nicely into gray areas as he grows older.

Spero Lucas is an unlicensed investigator, working mainly for a busy criminal defense lawyer. He gets a set, per-hour fee for those jobs, but on the side he occasionally searches for something lost, for 40 percent of its value.

The case-dismissed success of one of his jobs for the defense lawyer brings him to the attention of the lawyer’s imprisoned client, Anwan Hawkins, whose young son was the direct beneficiary of Spero Lucas’ good work. Hawkins wants to hire Spero to recover a large bag of money.

While Spero thinks about it, Brother Leo, sniffing out a dirty deal, warns against it. But Spero says yes, and thus, as the ancient Greek dramatists would say, the die is cast.

It has long been known that some of the District’s biggest drug dealers continued to mastermind their organizations from behind bars, which is exactly what Hawkins does. He arranges for boxes of “product,” i.e. marijuana, to be delivered to carefully chosen houses where no one lives or where the occupant is routinely gone all day. Hawkins’ two young lieutenants intercept the package as soon as it is dropped off by FedEx and deliver it to the customer.

Their cut is a small percentage, but it’s large enough to keep them more than happy. The lion’s share is socked away for the lioness, Hawkins’ ex-wife, and their previously mentioned cub.

Then someone starts intercepting the shipments, and it’s Spero’s job to get them back. He (unwisely) enlists the help of Leo’s student Ernest Lindsay, a sweet kid who wants to grow up and make movies (something Mr. Pelecanos knows a lot about, both from his youth when he worked for Ted and Jim Pedas’ film ventures and in recent years as a writer and co-producer of HBO’s “The Wire” and “Treme.”)

When the bad guys snatch Ernest, to hold as bait until Spero returns the large bag of cash, he knows it’s a bad scene: He might return the money, but there’s no way they’ll return Ernest Lindsay. So off Spero goes, basically on his own, much like Clint Eastwood in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” a movie both he and young Ernest admire.

Instead of car chases, Mr. Pelecanos serves up stakeouts, stalks and retribution, again much like Mr. Eastwood, who in that film played an outlaw with a good heart. Along the way, we travel some mean streets in far Northeast and over the line into Prince George’s County. But because Mr. Pelecanos‘ new hero, unlike his Derek Strange in several previous books, is young and vital, we’re treated to such things as long, heart-healthy bike rides through Rock Creek Park and a kayak workout in the upper Potomac River entered by way of Seneca Creek.

In the end, tarnished virtue triumphs, and George Pelecanos shows yet again why he is one of the best in the business. But isn’t it sort of ironic that he is being lionized nationally now - after television made his name better known - when he has always been so very good?

• John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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