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Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Book Reviews

The District

Soul Circus by George P. Pelecanos. Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 2003, 336 pages, $24.95.

Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.
— Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

For the subscribers of this Website who might not be familiar with crime fiction in general, and the work of George Pelecanos in particular, his new novel, Soul Circus, is a good introduction. In the great tradition of American crime novelists, Pelecanos’s book shares all the ingredients and characteristics of the genre. This is not just a matter of an adventurous plot full of suspense, but, more important, a commentary on the American urban landscape, as well as on identity, race, class, crime, politics, and poverty.

This is the eleventh novel by the very talented and now popular Pelecanos, who also writes scripts for the HBO crime series, The Wire. Like all of his previous work, the novel takes place in Washington, DC, his hometown, and exemplifies his fascination, love, and loyalty to the city. Pelecanos is one of the few mystery writers to use Washington as the setting for his novels. Like all of the notable writers of this genre, whose work chronicles urban life in American metropolises such as New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco (to name just a few), Pelecanos’s novels are foremost an anatomical exploration of the different layers of modern urban life in Washington. His novels explore and examine the different forces and dynamics that take place and constitute the relationship among the different inhabitants of the city and also, and probably most importantly, between the people and the city as a physical space.

However, as I’ve indicated in another review of Pelecanos’s work (see The Psychology of Crime: George Pelecanos’s Hell to Pay, April 1, 2002), his portrayal and experience of his hometown does not correspond to our perception of Washington as a popular tourist venue. Pelecanos doesn’t write about the Mall or the Lincoln and Vietnam memorials or about Washington as the center of American politics — although he gives you a sense of political machinations as well as the consequences that politics have on people’s lives in the city. Still, he is more interested in the city’s urban landscape, its working-class neighborhoods, bars and ethnic restaurants, barbershops and public housing, as well as gentrification and the other problems that beset it. He fills in details about life in DC like no other writer does. He writes about drug dealers, corrupt police officers, predators, and victims. For many readers, whose experience and perception of the city might be quite different, this novel’s landscape might portray a world quite difficult to comprehend inasmuch as it is so removed from their reality. To borrow Ralph Willett’s words:

All too quickly, this version of the city as fluid and amorphous invites the perception that the city defies understanding and is too enigmatic or too compact with information to be intelligible. To regard the city as unreadable, an impenetrable blur, is to ignore distinctions of gender, class, race and economic status. (The Naked City: Urban Crime Fiction in the USA, p. 2)

As some commentators have indicated, the characters in Pelecanos’s novels seem to come from the hand of a realist rather than from a writer of crime fiction. But let me be clear here and emphasize that Soul Circus, like the writer’s previous novels, is not just a dark image of a city or a pathological description of its inner neighborhoods and mean streets. On the contrary, Pelecanos’s depiction of the city is one of contradictions, hope and despair, success and failure. While the characters in his novel are not perfect or transparent in terms of their intentions, desires, and actions, they are not always negative images of themselves. To quote Ralph Willett again: “Nor should it be forgotten that while the character of the city as portrayed in crime fiction is dangerous, violent, and squalid, the metropolis is also the site of opportunity, aspiration and success” ( The Naked City, p. 4).

The story in this book picks up where Pelecanos’s last book, Hell to Pay, ended. The leading character, Derek Strange, is an African American private investigator who has been employed by the defense team of Granville Oliver, a notorious DC drug dealer allegedly involved in a number of murders, including that of his own uncle. Strange’s job is to provide evidence that will help Oliver avoid the death penalty. From Pelecanos’s previous book, we know that Strange is at least partly responsible for Oliver being on trial. He is thus working for Oliver’s defense team not only because it is a job that pays, but also because he’s haunted by his own complicity in Oliver’s fate. The story has all the familiar elements of Pelecanos’s previous work. It takes place in the city’s hard neighborhoods in which Strange and his white partner, Terry Quinn, try to locate a witness who may be able to testify on Oliver’s behalf. Their search brings the two men into direct confrontation with the harsh and explosive realities of the inner city’s neighborhoods. Drugs and gun dealing, brutality and male bravado in its extreme, are again the reality of Pelecanos’s story.

Derek Strange’s character is more at ease with himself here than was the case in Pelecanos’s previous books, Hell to Pay and Right as Rain. He has settled down and married his secretary, Janine, trying to become a role model for her son and an active and productive member of the community. To a certain degree, he is the success story who hasn’t moved to a more affluent neighborhood or chosen to disengage from what is going on around him or from the politics of race. Terry Quinn, on the other hand, is still struggling with his own demons and sense of masculinity, and with his inability to understand the world that surrounds him. Despite his misconceptions about race, or his conservative views on issues like gun control and the death penalty, he is an honest man who cares deeply about what he does. In the end, however, he becomes a victim of his own failure to control himself, to bury his pride, and, most of all, to read and understand the signs of the city’s “unfamiliar sights.” In his attempt to track down a missing girl, he pays with his own life. The narrator’s description of his final moments is indicative and symbolic of Quinn’s state of mind and of his function within the novel. Quinn is both literally and figuratively lost.

Quinn rolled down his window and began to laugh. It was easy. Fire with fire. All it took was a gun. He drove down Naylor and onto 25th, and looked around at the unfamiliar sights. He didn’t know this stretch of road, and anyway, his sight vision was for shit. Street lamps and headlights were haloed and blurry. He wasn’t lost….He pulled up behind a car at a stoplight. Cars were parked along the curb at his right. In his rearview he saw a red import, ticked out in gold. He looked to his left. He couldn’t see the occupants of the car. He heard Strange’s voice in his head: A classic trap. Gangs hunt in packs.

Ultimately, despite Quinn’s honest attempts and dedication to what he does, he is unable to transcend his own stereotypical perceptions. Derek Strange seems to personify Willett’s definition of a flaneur:

[A]n observant classifier of the city’s population “who reads people’s characters not only from the physiognomy of their faces but via a social physiognomy of the streets,”…the watchful (male) detective of popular fiction, one who listens, searches, and above all, like the private “eye,” sees and deciphers the signifiers of the labyrinth of populated spaces and buildings which forms the modern metropolis — strange and menacing but also intoxicating. (pp. 2-3)

Quinn, on the other hand, exemplifies the failure and collapse of reading and understanding because in the end he cannot relate this particular environment and everything that constitutes it to his own experience and culture. If the essence of hardboiled fiction comes down to the detective’s ability to understand his social surroundings and be able, as Willett reminds us, to navigate and control the urban environment and its elements, then Quinn’s death is inevitable, since he doesn’t play his role correctly.

Pelecanos’s protagonists — Strange and Quinn, specifically — are not just private investigators who do their jobs for the money, but rather people who always have a personal stake in the matter, at least intellectually. As I indicated above, there’s more to Granville Oliver’s case than money for Strange, and the same goes for Quinn. Unlike the classical detective hero, who maintains a distance and in many cases an eccentric position within the narrative, Pelecanos’s protagonists, like other hardboiled detectives, are fully engaged in the story’s action. Although, at first glance, money seems to be the motivation and the reward for solving a case, in the end, it is more about the investigator’s ethical position and commitment, and the role that he ascribes to himself within the community. The only time in the novel that Strange and Quinn accept a case just to make money, without any personal attachment or motivation, it ends up a disaster. As a private investigator and former police officer, Strange is driven primarily by his own ethical commitment; as a result, he does not hesitate to break the law when he thinks that his actions might save lives or benefit his community in some way.

And that is precisely what is so different about Pelecanos’s fiction: it does not use its different ingredients simply as a journalistic motif to serve the narrative, or to portray a realistic picture of life about which the reader can come to his or her own conclusions. Rather, it takes a conscious position on a number of problems in contemporary urban America. However, the novel is not a monochromatic depiction or a stereotypical picture of the African American community and its struggles. It is more a realistic representation and condemnation of any superficial and stereotypical understanding of race in America. In a memorable exchange between Strange and Quinn while they are cruising the streets of Anacostia, Pelecanos gives us a taste of otherness:

“Terry, when you say Far Southeast, or Anacostia, it’s like a code or something to the rest of Washington. Might as well just add the words ‘Turn your car around,’ or just ‘Stay away.’”

“Okay, it’s a lot nicer than people think it is. It’s an honest-to-God neighborhood. But the reality is, you are more likely to get yourself capped down here than you are in Ward Three.”

“True. But there’s also the fact that Anacostia’s damn near all black. That might have a little somethin to do with the fear factor, right?”


“Yeah,” said Strange, “absolutely. And it’s bullshit too. But you can almost understand it, the images we get fed all the time from the papers and the television news.”

Strange then continues with a story of a friend, a cameraman for a television network, who is sent by his producer to film a segment in Anacostia about a story that the network is doing about the “ghetto.”

So James does his thing and takes the footage back to the studio. They run it for the producer and it’s not exactly what he had in mind. It’s images of people leaving their houses to go to work, cutting their grass, dropping their kids off at school, like that. And the producer gets all pissed off and says to James, “I thought I told you to get some footage of black people in Anacostia.” And James says, “That’s what I got.” And the man says, “What I meant was, I wanted shots of people standing outside of liquor stores, dealing drugs, stuff like that.” And James said, “Oh, you wanted a specific kind of black person. You should have said so, man.”

In the end, George Pelecanos is a deft storyteller who keeps his narratives together by interweaving suspense and realism. No one is innocent in Pelecanos’s stories. And he does not pretty up the facts of what is going on. On the other hand, as a fan of this genre and as a reader who’s followed Pelecanos’s work from the beginning, I have mixed feelings about this latest novel. The story is entertaining and shares some of the ingredients of Pelecanos’s previous work, and especially of his last two books. That is precisely the problem, however: the story is repetitive. After reading the first few pages of the book, you know what to expect. The characters are predictable, the setting the same, and the plot, with the exception of a couple of unexpected turns, does not offer anything new. Sure, if you’re reading Pelecanos for the first time, you might find this book quite refreshing. If you’re a fan of his previous work, however, you will be quickly disappointed. Personally, the most exciting part of the novel for me was the short appearance of Nick Stefanos — one of Pelecanos’s most memorable characters from earlier books — and the suggestion in the story that he is going to play a more prominent role in Pelecanos’s future work.

In closing, I can only wonder if Pelecanos is simply trying to take advantage of his own popularity by writing books in such quick succession — or maybe he is just too busy with scriptwriting. In any case, I think he should reclaim the originality and freshness of his earlier work.

Apostolos Vasilakis teaches literature and philosophy at Roosevelt University in Chicago.
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