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Monday, April 01, 2002

Book Reviews

The Psychology of Crime

Hell to Pay by George Pelecanos. Little Brown & Company, Boston, 2002, 288 pages, $24.95.

The other part of me wanted to get out and stay out, but this was the part I never listened to. Because if I ever had I would have stayed in the town where I was born and worked in the hardware store and married the boss’ daughter and have five kids and read the funny paper on Sunday morning and smacked their heads when they got out of line and squabbled with the wife about how much spending money they were to get and what programs they could have on the radio or TV set. I might even have got rich – small-town rich, an eight-room house, two cars in the garage, chicken every Sunday and the Reader’s Digest on the living room table, the wife with a cast iron permanent and me with a brain like a sack of Portland cement. You take it, friend. I’ll take the big sordid dirty city.
Raymond Chandler, The Long Good-bye

Here you have it. This passage from Raymond Chandler’s The Long Good-bye (1953) epitomizes both the psychology of toughness in the American detective and crime novel, and its almost masochistic attraction to the urban topography. Although we would all agree that contemporary writers of this kind of literature have articulated their own boundaries, at the same time it is still passages like this that define and determine the rules of the genre and the psychological conflict of the protagonist(s).

George Pelecanos’s new novel, Hell to Pay, has all the good ingredients that has turned him into one of the most talented “hard-boiled” crime novelists today. Although some of Pelecanos’s loyal readers might be disappointed that he’s abandoned some of the most memorable characters of previous books, such as Marcus Clay and especially Dimitri Karras, one soon discovers that he hasn’t lost his ability to create good characters and atmosphere. On a personal note, I still think that Pelecanos’s King Suckerman and The Sweet Forever are among the best and most unforgettable stories of this generation of contemporary writers.

George Pelecanos is the author of 10 novels, all of them taking place in and around Washington, DC, and exploring, through the city’s ethnic mosaic, a variety of themes, such as racial divisions, male toughness, drugs, and the gun culture. From that perspective, Pelecanos proves that he is not only a good reader of the genre by employing certain formal and thematic elements of it, but also a good reader of modern American urban culture. Although some might argue that he lacks the style and rhythm of some of the great writers of American crime fiction from the 1930s through the 1950s, his stories are situated within that tradition, both in terms of structure and theme, while being updated for a modern sensibility. Intense violence, masculine bravado, perversity, you name it, it’s all there. Pelecanos knows how to write a vigorous prose, and he successfully articulates the intense psychology of his characters, as well as the topography of the setting in which action and life takes place. Not very many contemporary writers will give you a more accurate and detailed narrative about life in Washington, DC, beyond the White House, Capitol, and National Mall. One critic has called Pelecanos the Zola of DC. In his detailed, naturalistic descriptions, we enter a world we might have heard of but have never inhabited: neighborhood joints, diners and ethnic restaurants, prostitutes and pimps, corrupt police officers and drug users. He offers readers glimpses of places that are slowly disappearing as a result of the changes and transformations of the American urban landscape. As one of the main characters in Hell to Pay observes as he drives through the city:

The landscape changed from ghost town-downtown to living urban night as soon as they drove onto the north side of the circle. Small storefronts, occupying the first floors of structures built originally as residential row houses, low-rised the strip. The commercial picture was changing, new theater venues, cafes, and bars cropping up with regularity. In fact, it had been “changing” for many years. White gentrifiers tried to close down the family-run markets, utilizing obscure laws like the one forbidding beer and wine sales within a certain proximity to churches. The crusading gentrifiers cited the loiterers on the sidewalks, the kinds of unsavory clientele those types of business attracted. What they really wanted was for their underclass dark-skinned neighbors to go away. But they wouldn’t go away. The former Section Eights were up the street, and so were families who had lived here for generations. It was their neighborhood. It was a small detail that the gentrifiers never tried to understand.

Derek Strange and Terry Quinn, the two main characters of the novel, were already introduced and fully developed in Pelecanos’s previous book, Right as Rain (2001). They are both former police officers with various problems of their own. On the hand, we have the black private investigator, Derek Strange, who has spent his entire life in the same neighborhood, struggling to make sense of the violent landscape that is a part of it. If Strange seems to provide us with an image of moral authority and rationality, however, that doesn’t guarantee that he himself will always function within the limits of integrity and moral values. In other words, Strange and his partner are not the archetypes of the moral crusader who is able to maintain the appropriate distance from the surrounding environment. Although Pelecanos’s “heroes” are characterized by their liberal attitude and ability to offer some kind of critique of the political and cultural forces responsible for the negative conditions and impoverishment of the city’s black neighborhoods, they also test their own limits of lawful behavior and morality. In that sense, the specificity of the crime under investigation serves only to provide a look into the characters’ inner struggle and insecurities. What distinguishes Pelecanos’s characters is not primarily the search for the bad guys and the investigation of the world that surrounds them, but rather the search and investigation of their own identities and selves.

Strange’s sidekick, Terry Quinn, is a white former cop now working in a used book and record store. Quinn, a classic Freudian subject, embodies racial and masculine prejudices and anxieties. These elements of his personality set up the plot of the previous novel, Right as Rain, but it is his self-consciousness and desire to overcome his own limits that set up the complex relationship with Strange, which to some extent functions as the core of that novel. Although in his first appearance in Right as Rain, Quinn is portrayed as a troubled, solitary man, here he is more a part of the surrounding environment. Again, however, it is this environment and its various manifestations that threatens the stability and self-control of the “hero.” As is often the case in the crime novel, the social attitude of the main characters is constituted through their questioning and reflections of the way that society and justice function:

Because of the numbing consistency of the murder rate, and because lower-class black life held little value in the media’s eyes, the violent deaths of young black men and women in the District of Columbia had not been deemed particularly newsworthy for the past fifteen years. Murders of young blacks rarely made the lead-off in the TV news and were routinely buried inside the Metro section of the Washington Post, the details consisting of a paragraph or two at best, the victims often unidentified, the follow-up nil. Suburban liberals plastered Free Tibet stickers on the bumpers of their cars, seemingly unconcerned that just a few short miles from the White House, American children were enslaved in nightmare neighborhoods, living amid gunfire and drugs and attending dilapidated public schools. The nation was outraged at high school shootings in white neighborhoods, but young black men and women were murdered without fanfare in the nation’s capital every single day.

The case that dominates the story is the killing of a young boy who was a member of the football team coached by Strange and Quinn. However, this investigation is shadowed by the personal investigation into the background of a promising young black professional who is about to get married to the daughter of one of Strange’s friends, and the search for a young 14-year-old girl who has run away from home and become a prostitute. The interweaving of these cases gives the writer the opportunity to expose us not only to the violence and thuggish reality of Strange’s and Quinn’s world, but, more important, to the effects that this violence and thuggishness have on the intense psychological pressures that the two characters undergo.

In the first story, the violent murder of the young football player (and his uncle) gives the author the opportunity to reveal to us both the senseless killing of young, innocent children and the edgy and dark side of the criminal mind. Although it is quite clear that the author doesn’t excuse or justify any criminal activity, or the motives behind it, his portrayal and investigation of the psychology and conditions involved in this particular kind of criminal life can be read and understood as a form of social protest:

He was stuck with White. White still acted and thought like a kid sometimes. He hadn’t changed much since the three of them had been tiny, growing up in the Waterfront Gardens, the Section Eight housing units down off M Street by the Southeast/Southwest line. Wasn’t no “waterfront” about it, though sometimes the seagulls did drop in from Buzzards Point and pick at the trash. Some government type actually did have the nerve to name that shit hole a Garden, too. One of those jokes you couldn’t even laugh at. Not that Potter was crying about it or nothin’ like that. If it wasn’t for what he didn’t have, and he never did have one good thing, he wouldn’t have the ambition and drive he had today. He could have used a father, he supposed, someone to throw a football to or sumshit like that. His mother didn’t even have the strength to lift a ball, eighty-eight pounds of no-ass crackhead like she was, at the end. He wasn’t gonna cry about that either. Family and all that bullshit, it meant nothing to him, and it didn’t get you anything when you counted the chips up at the end of the day.

In the second story, his future father-in-law already views Calhoun Tucker suspiciously:

Always dressed clean, too, real sharp, with the gadgets that go with it: cells, pagers, all that. And I can’t figure out what he does to get it….He’s got this business card, says “Calhoun Enterprises.” Anytime I see “Enterprises” on a business card, way I look at it, might as well print the word “Unfocused” next to it, or “Doesn’t Want No Real Job,” or just plain “Bullshit,” you know what I’m saying?

Tucker functions as a double for Derek Strange and a reminder of his own moral weakness and irresponsibility.

As for the third story, it provides the venue for a closer look at the character of Terry Quinn, his masculine bravado and overabundance of aggression. His final confrontation at the end of the book with the pimp, Worldwide Wilson, is reminiscent of the cowboy mentality that he so enjoys in his beloved Wild West books. To some extent, by the end of the novel, Quinn turns into a caricature of a character from a Western, distanced from the more articulated and developed character we find in Pelecanos’s previous book.

Although, as I mentioned, this is probably not one of my favorite Pelecanos works, I still recommend it. Pelecanos is a natural, and knows how to build a story and keep the reader nailed to her seat. Although some have argued that the function of these books only serves the purpose of pleasure and recreation, at the same time we cannot ignore the social function that these stories might play. The realistic narrative and atmosphere, the characters’ psychology and social commentary, make Pelecanos’s book more than just a page-turner – as all good crime fiction is.

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