- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 16, 2006


By George Pelecanos

Little, Brown, $24.99, 372 pages


In the last 15 years, D.C.-born George Pelecanos has written thirteen novels, all of them set in Washington, all of them taut, fast-moving thrillers that feature regular guys as heroes, most of whom actually live on, as well as patrol, some of the meanest of our mean streets.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking Mr. Pelecanos is a “local writer,” a term often used to damn with faint praise, because he is probably better known nationally and even internationally (big in France, for example). “The Night Gardener,” his latest, is every bit as good as the best of them, and adds significantly to his well-earned, and growing, reputation as one of the best crime writers in the business.

The book opens in 1985 with two D.C. cops not long on the job watching the perimeter of a crime scene, a community garden in far Southeast. The victim is a young girl named Eve, the third young person with a first name that is spelled the same way in reverse — causing the press to dub them the Palindrome Murders — to be murdered in a similar fashion.

They’re observing a seasoned detective at work: “T.C. Cook was an average-sized black man in a tan raincoat with a zip-in lining, worn over a houndstooth sport jacket. His dress Stetson, light brown with a chocolate band holding a small multicolored feather, was cocked just so, covering a bald head sided by clown patches of black hair flecked with gray.

“He had a bulbous nose and a thick brown moustache. His mouth rarely turned up in a smile, but his eyes sometimes shone brightly with amusement.” (“?sided by clown patches ? flecked with gray ? bulbous nose and a thick brown moustache.” Do you need anything more to see this guy?)

The young cops are named Ramone, the straight arrow, and Holiday, the not-so-straight. Holiday says the detective is nicknamed the Mission Man: “‘The brass don’t like him, but they sure don’t [expletive] with him. Guys got a ninety percent closure rate; he can do what he wants.’

“That’s Holiday all over, thought Ramone. Get results and all will be forgiven. Produce, and do whatever the [expletive] you want.

“Ramone had his own rules: follow the playbook, stay safe, put in your twenty-five and move on. He was not enamored of Cook or any of the other mavericks, cowboys, and assorted living legends on the force. Romanticizing the work could not elevate it to something it was not. This was a job, not a calling. Holiday, on the other hand, was living a dream, had lead in his pencil, and was jacked up big on the Twenty-third Psalm.”

Those quotes are on the book’s third page, and from there until the end you don’t need anything more to understand the conflict and internal dynamics that make “The Night Gardener” so compelling, so quietly exciting and so well worth reading.

After the brief 1985 section, the action shifts to 2005 when the players are the same but their positions on stage have changed. The Mission Man, now retired, has recently suffered the loss of his wife and a stroke. Embittered, he lives alone in his increasingly messy house.

Ramone is still a cop, a detective, but will not be promoted further, thanks to his by-the-book, loner attitude. Holiday is no longer “on the job,” thanks mainly to Ramone’s investigation of him while working Internal Affairs. Never married, he drives a limo and hangs out with a group of functioning alcoholics at a bar on Upper Georgia Avenue.

One night, half in the bag, he loses his way and pulls over to sleep across the street from a community garden on a deserted residential street. In the middle of the night, needing to relieve himself, he walks into the garden and discovers the dead body of a black teenager. The youth’s name is Asa.

Holiday calls in the location of the dead body, anonymously, and intends no further involvement, but then he learns the boy’s name. He finds and contacts Lt. Cook, who has never been able to put the Palindrome Murders out of his mind, and the two join forces.

Cook’s chief suspect for the three killings 20 years earlier had gone to jail on an unrelated charge, but he has recently been released. Cook knows he is “dirty,” and Holiday, who soon comes to believe him, goes to Ramone and attempts to elicit his help.

As by-the-book as ever, Ramone resists their theory and refuses their help, bluntly reminding them that neither one of them is “police” any longer. But he has a soft spot: He knew the victim because Asa and his own son had once been friendly. Will Ramone eventually help or won’t he, and if he does bend, how far will he go? These questions take up the rest of the book, and the author skillfully provides the answers, step by fascinating step.

Ever since his early (and heavily autobiographical) Nick Stefanos series, Mr. Pelecanos’ books have not been traditional mysteries. As he once told an interviewer, “Increasingly, my books are novels about working class people in the modern city that have crime elements to them. And I don’t think I’ll ever leave those crime elements behind because I like conflict in a book. I like storytelling.

“And in addition to my belief that books should be about something, I think also that within these books things should happen.” To a wonderful degree, all of those elements are present in “The Night Gardener.”

The novels of George Pelecanos are noirish in tone and style, and, like many of them, are also quite moralistic. The endings are by no means completely happy, and if the good guys don’t lose the battle, they often lose something or somebody important to them.

But good triumphs over evil, much in the way of a classic Western, and it should surprise no one that Mr. Pelecanos loves Westerns, and also movies and television (he’s been a writer for “The Wire” for some years now).

He once said, “… several of my obsessions that would show up in subsequent books [are:] Shoes (and the legs and feet that came with them); American musclecars; the funk and soul movement of the 1970s; the ritual of drinking and bars; the idea of the workplace as the second home of outcasts, loners, and freaks; work itself as its own reward; and the notion of friendship, honor, betrayal and bloody redemption.”

He also loves food. In my review of Jim Harrison’s last work of fiction, I quoted him as saying, “The only advice I can give to aspiring writers is don’t do it unless you’re willing to give your whole life to it. Red wine and garlic also helps.”

Here’s what George Pelecanos, who lists Harrison as one of his favorite authors, told an interviewer who wanted to know what was in his refrigerator: “Kalamata olives and feta cheese. Cold beer for me and milk for my kids.”

Way to go, George.

John Greenya is a Washington writer.



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