Tag Archives: George Pelecanos

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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Strange days: What It Was by George Pelecanos


(Reagan Arthur/Black Bay, 1012)

It’s 1972. Roberta Flack is at the top of the charts and bell bottoms are in style. Soul brothers carefully shape their afros, while ads urge men to not be a stiff and get the dry look. Cars are big and use a ton of gas but who cares? It’s not like we’re gonna run out.

Derek Strange, just a few years after leaving the metro D.C. police, has gone on his own as a private investigator and he dreams of buying a neon sign for his office, the kind with a magnifying glass in the design. When a young woman hires him to recover a missing ring, the investigation uncovers some unlikely leads. Strange crosses paths with his old partner on the force, Frank Vaughn, and they inevitably team up to stop a ruthless killer known as Red Fury who’s popping dudes all over town.

That’s what it is in What It Was, the fifth Derek Strange book by George Pelecanos, but the first in the series I’ve read. I can already tell that Pelecanos is well on his way to becoming one of my favorites. Like Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake, Pelecanos has a mastery of casual language, the simplicity of which belies its ability to express. It’s not laconic, clipped prose. It’s just slick and easy and you can’t help but get caught up in the flow.

Pelecanos’ characterizations are also great. I have to admit that the name “Derek Strange” had me conjure up images of some sort of paranormal investigator or something, but Strange isn’t strange at all. He’s a young (in 1972) black man trying to get established as a private investigator after quitting the police force. He’s got a girlfriend he loves, though he admits that his wandering eye is a weakness. He loves his mom and brings her take-out from their favorite diner when he visits. All in all, Strange is a cool, confident man, but working hard to grow out of youth and he’s still got a lot to learn along the way.

Frank Vaughn is also an interesting guy. An older white man with a lot of time on the police force, Vaughn isn’t exactly racist, but he’s a “product of his time,” and though he really tries to open up to the changing times it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. He’s good guy at heart, but he’s also an old-school cop, not unwilling to get rough or bend the rules to get justice.

In the hands of lesser authors, these characters might be somewhat cliché, but Pelecanos carries this off adeptly. Likewise, the setting and time period could easily have come off as kitschy, or maybe like a Tarantino-esque homage to blaxpolitation films and funk hits, but Pelecanos’ early-’70s D.C. rings true, capturing well the racial tension of the time though Strange and Vaughn’s unlikely friendship.

The verdict: ★★★★✩ (4/5 stars) What It Was is really a great crime book. I might almost go as far as to give it 4.5/5 stars, but I’m trying to be discerning in my ratings these days and reign in my enthusiasm. But it could easily have received the additional 1/2 star. I’d heard of Pelecanos before and I understand he writes for the show The Wire, but I’ve never seen it (I’m terribly behind the times). Just judging by what I’ve read in What It Was, Pelecanos is going to be my next favorite author. He’s just awesome.

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