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"The Night Gardener"
(Reviewed by Hagen Baye NOV 16, 2006)
“How do you solve a murder? Tell me. ‘Cause I’d really like to know….Would finding that killer raise those kids back from the dead? Would it bring closure to the families? What would it solve, exactly?….”
This is one of the two principal themes of George Pelecanos’ 14th book, The Night Gardener: The hard truth that solving a murder does not undo or right the irreversible wrong of the act of killing. So, unlike the traditional crime mysteries where all is right with the world once the killer is apprehended, solving the cause of the death that is the heart of this story is no reason to rejoice at the end of The Night Gardener. Complete and satisfactory closure is unrealistic to expect. “…[T]his thing could not be undone.”
Pelecanos’ second theme is that wrongs committed against children, whether inflicted physically or verbally, and not necessarily wrongs that are classifiable as Hitler-type evils, all too often result in the abused child, sooner or later, inflicting injuries on him-/her-self and/or inflicting his/her own abuse against the next generation of innocent children—and the cycle of abuse perpetuates itself and becomes part and parcel of the human condition.
The principal plot of The Night Gardener revolves around the reunion in 2005 of three men who were last together in 1985 at a particular crime scene. All three were District of Columbia police officers in 1985. The particular crime was the third of a series of murders referred to as the Palindrome Murders, named such because each victim’s name is spelt the same way front and back (Eve, Otto and Ava). Each victim is a black child who had been sexually assaulted, shot in the head and dumped in a community garden. (The “Night Gardener” was the police’s name for this particular perpetrator.) The three police officers are Sgt. T.C. Cook, a black homicide detective, and two young, white uniformed cops, Gus Ramone and Dan “Doc” Holiday.
In 2005, only Gus Ramone is still on the force. Cook is retired and Holiday is off the force. Holiday resigned rather than face an IAD disciplinary preceding that was being conducted by Ramone. What brings the three together again is another murdered black child, a teenager named Asa, found shot in the head, possibly sexually abused, and in the same community garden as the last Palindrome Murder in 1985. Holiday happened to stumble upon this crime scene so reminiscent of the Night Gardener’s work. He latches onto it as an opportunity to both redeem himself and to stick it to DC police department for forcing him out and to Ramone for his role in it. Holiday seeks out Cook, figuring correctly that Cook remained frustrated by his failure to solve the Palindrome Murders and would jump at the chance to catch the Night Gardener, if indeed this murder represented his/her return to active murdering, despite the 20-year hiatus.
Each of these three characters represents a different point on a continuum with respect to their respective view of police work, with Cook at one extreme, Holiday at the other and Ramone in the middle. Cook is obsessed with the work. In 1985, Cook has been on the force for 24 years; a cop since he was 26, meaning that he broke into the force in the early 60’s, back in the day before affirmative action. In 2005 Cook is a widowed retiree approaching 70 and recuperating from a stroke. During his time on the force, he was known as “the Mission Man,” on account of his dogged pursuit in solving his assigned homicide cases. He was a crusty and wizened straight shooter who during his prime solved 90% of his cases. Cook is a man who refused to let any obstacle keep him from accomplishing what he set out to do. All who doubted his ability to be cop and then a detective were proven dead wrong, as there was no one better in his day. He even proved wrong his doctor’s prediction that his stroke would prevent him from being able to read. Truly, though retired, he is haunted by his failure to solve the Palindrome Murders and remains on the case on his own. In fact, he has even fingered a possible suspect, someone whose time in jail for an unrelated offense coincides with the twenty-year interval since the last Palindrome Murder in 1985.
“Doc” Holiday, on the other hand, was obsessed with his status as a cop and felt it gave him certain liberties that put him above the rules. Holiday did what he pleased. He was a shallow man with a warped sense of self that clouded his view of reality. His drinking and “excessive womanizing” [“He had forgotten her face by the time he turned the key to his car.”] interfered with his work and his life. It was only a matter of time until he screwed up enough to be forced off the police force. The loss of his dream job made it difficult for him to get up each morning go and run his limo service business.
While Holiday derived status from being a cop and Cook defined his worth by his accomplishments, Ramone had no romantic or gung-ho notions about police work. He viewed it as a job and a job that was not bigger than himself. From the start, his plan was to do his job by following the rules, do his 25 years and then move on. Nor did he expect to be able to save the world by what he did.
“Occasionally I put assholes away for life, knowing they can’t kill again. That’s how I speak for the fallen few. But as far as solving goes? I don’t solve shit. I go to work every day and I try to protect my wife and kids from the bad things that are out there. That’s my mission. That’s all I can do.”
Nevertheless, by 2005 Ramone has developed into a highly competent and responsible detective.
As it turns out, Asa Johnson, the dead teenager, was a friend of Ramone’s son. Ramone also knows the family and he feels obligated to assist in the investigation even though he had not “caught” the case. Ramone has to ward off Cook and Holiday from getting involved in the investigation; police rules did not permit private parties from being involved in open cases and Ramone had to finesse this attempt to interfere.
Ramone solves Asa’s death in the end and as stated at the start of this review, the solution is no cause of joy. In fact, it is a matter of tremendous guilt and a frightening example of what used to be referred to as “man’s inhumanity to man.”
By the end both Ramone and Holiday also learn some important lessons. Ramone learns that exigent circumstances require some flexibility, that all is not black and white, but a bit of both, just like his mixed race kids (he is married to an African American woman who is an ex-cop) and it’s his raising of his teenage son that helps him to come to this realization. Everyone wears a “gray hat,” to borrow a phase used by Denis Hamill in his review of the HBO program, The Wire, for which Pelecanos writes. For himself, Holiday acknowledges that he was on the road to becoming a thoroughly corrupt cop had he remained on the force.
The book also has other subplots, which are connected one way or the other with the main plot. One has to do with the struggles faced by some who want to escape from its clutches, but are trapped by loyalty to relatives or those within the web of drug dealing who have done things to help them or their relatives. Another, involves struggles Ramone’s teenage son faces at the suburban school he attends which claims to “celebrate diversity,” but is really uptight about its minority students and apply its rules in a stricter fashion to those students.
Those who have read Pelecanos will certainly not be disappointed; this is another superb effort on his part. Those reading him for the first time can see from the few snippets of quotes above, the gripping power of Pelecanos’ prose. He is without a doubt one of the finest writers today and his messages transcend the particulars of his plots and speak with atypical depth about the society in which we live and the human condition in general. In particular, his writing about race relations and about people of color is blessed by a rare degree of empathy and authenticity.
- Amazon readers rating: from 87 reviews
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(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie MAR 27, 2005)
"She had it done while I was out on calls"' Mark looked at his bandaged hand as if the bite was the reason the dog had been destroyed.
"It ain't on you," said Lorenzo.
"I know it."
"You believe in God, right?"
"I believe there's someone higher than us."
"But do you believe that He's up there, moving us around like chess pieces or somethin'?"
"Of course not."
"Neither do I. Things happened to that dog on this cruel earth to make it the way it was. Wasn't its fault, but still. It's not like God is gonna step in now, point His finger down from heaven and touch that animal, make it so it can live around people and other animals the right way."
"What's your point?"
"Irena did her job. 'Cause that dog was too far gone to change its ways. He had to be put down. you see that don't you?"
It's hard not to like a character who loves animals, even mean animals - the mad, the dirty, the underfed, the sick, vermin infested ones, some even trained to kill. Dogs, cats, parakeets, etc., they're Lorenzo Brown's thing. He's an officer for the Humane Society Law Enforcement team in Washington, D.C., and likes his job, a lot. Lorenzo figures if something is off with an animal, it's a human's fault, and is ready to paper offenders and serve search and/or arrest warrants if necessary. He saved his own dog, Jasmine, the night before her scheduled euthanization. She is the first pet he has every owned.
Brown is an ex-con, out on parole after eight years in prison for a drug charge. He is determined to stay straight. Each morning, when he walks Jasmine, he passes the home of Nigel Johnson's mother. Occasionally, he will see Nigel there, along with a couple of young men wearing thick platinum chains. The troops lean against their rides - BMW coupes and sedans, a black Escalade, "tricked with spinners in the mix." The black GS430 with "dual pipes and aftermarket rims" belongs to Nigel, now a powerful drug kingpin, who is usually busy directing business, talking on his Nextel. Lorenzo and Nigel, both smart and ambitious as kids, had run the streets together, going back almost twenty-five years. Brown had done the righteous thing by his friend. He stayed silent when he was pressured to give Nigel up. Brown chose to serve his time instead. Now he has had enough of the life. His old friends don't quite get it, however.
Rachel Lopez also loves her work. She is Lorenzo's parole officer and one of the finest. She comes on tough initially and lays down the rules, but she wants all her people to make it. Much of herself has been invested in their ultimate success. Rachel knows Lorenzo has committed crimes not included in his jacket. To have advanced in the game as far as he had, he probably did some violence, maybe even killed. She also knows, that now, in the present, Lorenzo is not a bad man. But Ms. Lopez has problems of her own. Her own life is spinning out of control, and her late nights are taking their toll.
Officer Brown needs Officer Lopez' support right now. He needs all the help he can get. A stupid mistake concerning turf boundaries has triggered enmity between local gangs. A psychopathic youth is on the streets, looking for a way to escalate the problem; waiting for the slightest opportunity to kill. A war is about to go down and our man could very well be sucked into it.
I have long been a George Pelecanos fan. Over the years, I have read all his books, and to tell the truth, he has only written novels that I love, and others that I like a lot. This one is special though. I was deeply moved by the character of Lorenzo Brown, a really decent man trying to straighten out his life. The author lets us in on his thought processes. Mr. Brown is far from perfect. He carries within himself a strong streak of humanity though, which is his saving grace. Then there is Rachel Lopez, who I also grew to care about. She is battling, against the odds, to keep her head above water. They both are having a real hard time in this world, yet always look to give someone else a hand up.
No one captures the mean streets of the D.C. neighborhood like Pelecanos. His gritty prose, street-smart dialogue, fast-paced narrative and wonderful character development are what make his books bestsellers - literate ones.
- Amazon readers rating: from 46 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)Featuring Derek Strange and Terry Quinn:
- Shoedog (1994)
- Drama City (2005)
- The Night Gardener (2006)
- The Turnaround (2008)
- The Way Home (2009)
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- Official George P. Pelecanos Web site
- MostlyFiction.com review of Nick's Trip
- MostlyFiction.com reviews of novels in the Derek Strange and Terry Quinn series
- MostlyFiction.com review of The Turnaround
- MostlyFiction.com review of The Way Home
- MostlyFiction.com review of The Cut
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About the Author:
George P. Pelecanos was born in Washington, D.C. in 1957. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland at College Park, and has worked as an electronics salesman, shoe salesman, bartender, construction worker, and independent film producer. He is a former employee of Circle Films, the company that produced the early films of Joel and Ethan Coen (like Blood Simple and Miller's Crossing) and brought John Woo's The Killer to the U. S.
As a modern crime fiction author, Pelecanos is very much a descendant of the hard-boiled and noir schools. His style is tough and direct, in the best hard-boiled manner. All of his novels take place in Washington, D.C. and in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs; however, his plots do not involve the usual cadre of politicians or national intrigue, but instead depict the crimes and passions of the streets. His novel King Suckerman was a finalist for the Golden Dagger Award and is being produced as a movie by Sean Combs, and his novel, The Sweet Forever, was named a Notable Book of 1998 by Publishers Weekly.
Pelecanos started off as a writer, then story editor is now producer of the The HBO series, The Wire.
He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his wife and two children.