The Double by George Pelecanos

The Double is the second outing of George Pelecanos’ war-vet-Marine-turned-private-eye Spero Lucas, who was first introduced in The Cut. I have not read The Cut, but I’m going to get to it since I enjoyed The Double and Pelecanos is on the fast track to becoming one of my favorite authors. That being said, I probably didn’t enjoy The Double as much as I should have. That was no fault of the author, but rather circumstance.

The past few weeks have been a mess. I won’t go into too much detail (not for privacy reasons, I just don’t feel like getting into background and context right now), but long story short: mom fell, seriously injured her good eye, went through emergency surgery and spent time at an extended care facility to recover. That’s basically what happened, but I’m leaving out a number of details that made this event an absolute ordeal for both mom and me. At any rate, most of the upsetting stuff is over, but mom’s recovery of her eyesight is up in the air. Sure, I get all that life-is-a-beautiful-gift stuff, but let’s face it: sometimes it just fucking sucks. (This whole ordeal deserves a more complete write-up, but I’ll take care of that outside of this book review).

So that, in a nutshell, is what kind of distracted me from enjoying The Double as fully as I would have under more pleasant circumstances. Anyway, Spero Lucas’ specialty is finding lost items and The Double has Lucas on the tail of a stolen painting entitled “The Double.” Lucas is hired by a woman who had the painting stolen from her by a aging misogynistic beach bum who screwed her over, literally. She just wants the painting back, but Lucas wants justice, and not just the kind of justice that the law provides.

Spero Lucas has an interesting background, being one of three adopted sons of a variety of ethnicities in a Greek-American family. Race is understated in Pelacanos’ books and it took me a while to picture Spero in my mind (I kept imagining him as African-American, but I think his school teacher brother is African-American and Spero is white). Does it matter? Pelecanos leaves that for you to decide. But the obtuse way he writes about race and race relations in his books shows that while he is a genre-based writer, genre-based fiction can express important issues in innovative ways. Does it matter? Is it important? Pelecanos seems to say, yes, it is important, and no, it doesn’t matter. Pelecanos’ characters are definitely closely identified with their racial and ethnic backgrounds, but at the same time their personas extend beyond the archetypes on which lesser authors often fall back. Racial and ethnic identities in Pelecanos’ world belong to the characters and not the other way around.

Actually, Spero Lucas, at first glance, seemed to me a rather boring character. He’s a former Marine, a vet of the Iraq war. He likes to bike, kayak and keep fit. He enjoys music. He likes a little beer and the occasional toke of weed. He’s polite and cool and never has much trouble attracting the ladies, but is always surprised when he does. He had a hard time in the war, but he’s pretty stable and turned out all right. It doesn’t get to him. He’s perfectly normal. Right.

That’s where The Double turns it around. Lucas is a far more complex character than Pelecanos initially lets on. Lucas may be normal, but he has his issues. He so good at hiding his issues, he’s fooled himself into thinking he’s okay. He’s so good that he’s fooled the reader into thinking that he’s okay, a normal dude. Only when we see him gun down bad guys as if he were still a Marine in Iraq, or watching the window of his adulterous lover’s apartment at night do we get the sense that Lucas’ dark (dark, not evil) side is just beneath his normal guy exterior and barely in check. “The Double” is not just the name of the painting, or the title of the book, but also a clue to Lucas’ persona.

The Double is seemingly a straight-up crime thriller, but illuminates the dark little corners of Lucas’ mind in subtle ways and is a good example of why Pelecanos is probably one of the best writers around today. (But I have to say, George, you should know by now that Glocks don’t have manual safeties. At least not usually. Sorry–just me, picking my nits.)

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