Spero Lucas - Tough P.I. & Iraqi Vet, D.C.
Nick Stefanos - Bartender, Private Investigator, Washington D.C., early 1990s
Jump over to read a review of The Way Home
Jump over to read a review of The Turnaround
Jump down to read review of Soul Circus
Jump down to read review of Hell to Pay
"Hard Revolution "
(reviewed by Chuck Barksdale MAR 16, 2004)
This was the part of the job, the open contempt, which got under Strange's skin. Wouldn't have been so bad if he only got it while he was in uniform. But he was reminded of it even when he was not on duty. Once at a party near Florida and 7th, a woman told him in front of Darla Harris, his date, that what he was doing was a form of betrayal, that in essence, he was a traitor. But he felt that he was not. He was protecting his people. He was doing a job that few were willing to do and that needed to get done. He had convinced himself of this early on so that he could get through his day-to-day.
It was true that he had been warned by experienced black officers to expect that kind of attitude. But he didn't know it would continue to bother him as deeply as it did. He talked about it with his friend Lydell whenever he could, because he could not talk about it with Troy Peters. Lydell Blue had also become an MPD cop, straight out of the Army. He knew.
In the fourth and perhaps last book in the Derek Strange series, George Pelecanos provides some background perspective on Strange in this book that takes place mostly in the racially-turbulent times of 1968 in Washington, D.C. Fans of the series will be interested to learn more about how Strange became the person shown in the first three books of the series, Right as Rain , Hell to Pay and Soul Circus. For new fans, this is not a bad place to start.
The book begins in the Spring of 1959, with 13-year old African-American Derek playing football and hanging out with his Greek-American friend Billy Georgelakos. Derek and Billy became friends despite their backgrounds, since Derek's father works at Billy's father's restaurant. Derek and Billy cross paths with a few other white teenagers that lead to some trouble for Derek as he is caught shoplifting. Fortunately, the man that caught Derek decides to give him some good advice instead of turning him in. This early section of the book provides background on Derek's family, his older (by five years) brother Dennis, his mother Alethea, his father Darius, as well as his parents' employers, including Washington detective Frank Vaughn, who lives in one of the houses cleaned by Alethea Strange.
The last three-quarters of the book takes place in 1968, both before and after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. By 1968, both Derek and his brother Dennis have been to, and returned from, the war in Vietnam. Dennis, somewhat disabled by the war, is struggling to find his way, taking drugs and associating with questionable acquaintances, while Derek has joined the Washington police. The following excerpt demonstrates Pelecanos' strength in using dialogue to show realistic and flawed characters with the younger Derek trying to convince his brother Dennis to improve.
"So, what, you put on that uniform, you lose your color?"
"Now you gonna get up on your high horse and look down on the black man, too"
"That is bullshit, Dennis. I'm just pointin' out that this particular cat is wrong."
"I got eyes. You don't need to be lecturin' me on things I can see my own self."
They had reached the door of the house. Strange put a hand on Dennis' arm. "Listen, all I'm tellin' you is, you don't need to be runnin' in place out here. I can hook you up with some kind of job, you let me. I'm always meeting people, got small businesses and such, on my shifts. They'd be glad to do a police officer a solid, help out someone in his family, you know what I'm sayin'? That's the way it works."
"The system, you mean."
"Yeah. Nothing wrong with it, either."
"I ain't interested."
"What you plan to do, then, be some kind of professional victim? Give up 'cause of all this white oppression you always going on about? So what, all these race-hatin' motherf*ckers out here can point to a shiftless nigger like you and say they were right?"
"Shut up, man."
"Or maybe you must gonna keep hangin' with trash like Jones, till something happens you can't fix."
"Told you to shut your mouth."
"You and me, we weren't brought up that way."
Dennis pulled his arm free. "Dinner's ready, I expect."
"You're better than you know."
"I'm tired, man." Dennis lowered his eyes. "Do me a favor, Derek. Let me be."
Pelecanos includes some crime in this book, with two groups of bad characters, one white and one black. Not only does this add interest to this background book about Strange, it also allows Pelecanos to compare two different groups in how they act and think during this turbulent time in American history. Of course, neither group has much redeeming character, although two, one white and one black member of each group, including Derek's brother Dennis, do show some inner struggle in dealing with right and wrong as well as the conflicts between blacks and whites. Both of these groups cause trouble and both Strange and Detective Vaughn work toward solving the cases, separately and together. Overlying these cases are the consequences of King's assassination and the chaos and destruction that takes place in Washington D.C.
Fans of Pelecanos' early works will enjoy the appearance of characters from other Pelecanos books, most notably both Nick Stefanos, the grandfather and grandson. Of course, the book has many characters that are in the Derek Strange series such as Lydell Blue as well as some lesser-known characters that only the true fan will notice.
Pelecanos is a great writer and this is a very good book, much better than the average novel. However, I was left somewhat unsatisfied and disappointed, not with the book itself, but its placement in the series. I think if this book had come at the beginning of the series (similar to the DC Quartet's The Big Blowdown), it would have added greatly to the whole. After having already read the first three (great) books, I was expecting more of an opportunity to read about what Strange is doing "now, " so reading this book was not as satisfying in that sense. Perhaps this is coupled with my fear that Pelecanos may never go there again, if indeed this is the last book in the series. This is a minor complaint and in no way detracts from the book itself. In fact, if you are new to the series, then you have the opportunity to read the books in my proposed order. I think then you would find this to be a very great book.
Pelecanos has a way of writing music into his books in a way that is almost as if you are hearing a soundtrack. In Hard Revolution his primary source of music references is the soul music of the 60's. Pelecanos has even prepared a companion CD that is available for purchase at his signings.
- Amazon readers rating: from 33 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Hard Revolution at MostlyFiction.com(back to top)
(reviewed by Chuck Barksdale MAR 3, 2003)
In this third book in the Derek Strange/Terry Quinn series, George Pelecanos presents another realistic, extremely well written story of the mostly gritty side of the Washington D.C. area. Private detective Derek Strange is working for the law firm of Ives and Colby, the defense attorneys for Granville Oliver, a noted major DC drug dealer who is being tried for the murder of his uncle. Strange searches for clues that may help to refute the charges against Oliver; the only real hope is to provide enough doubt to prevent a death sentence. Strange really doesn't want to help Oliver, but his views on guns and killing provide him motivation to help prevent the government's murder of Oliver.
In this book, Strange is more comfortable and confident in himself and he is continuing to help out with area youth football. He is now married to his secretary Janine and is helping to raise her high school senior son, Lionel. The growing relationship and establishment of the three as a family is shown in this humorous passage about cars and women:
"How's that car running?" said Strange
"Good," said Lionel. "I took it up to the detail place and had them brighten up the wheels."
"You check the oil?"
"Cause you got to do that," said Strange. "You need to change that oil every three or four months, at the outside."
"You want that car to last you, hear?"
"I said, Okay."
"You don't change the oil, it's like gettin' on with a woman without giving her a kiss."
"Derek," said Janine.
"It might feel real good when you're doing it, but you want her to be there for you the next time you get the urge."
"What I mean is, a woman ain't gonna be stayin' around too long if you don't treat her right. Car's the same way."
Lionel shifted in his seat. "You mean like, changing the oil on the car is kinda like giving a woman flowers, right?"
"Exactly," said Strange, relieved that Lionel had gotten him out of the woods.
Lionel cocked his head. "You supposed to do that every time you hit it, or every three of four months?"
"Sorry, Mom. It's just, Derek is getting deep with me here, and I wanted to make sure I understood."
Janine flashed her eyes at Strange.
"Dinner's delicious, baby," said Strange.
"Glad you're enjoying it," said Janine.
A significant portion of the story concerns the interaction of competing drug dealers, especially in light of the reduced presence of Granville Oliver's influence. One of the competing factions is led by Horace McKinley, a lieutenant of the imprisoned Phillip Wood. Wood, the former main lieutenant of Oliver, is a key witness for the Prosecution. He is expected to present damaging evidence against Oliver to reduce his own jail time. McKinley is helping Wood since he expects him to continue his power where Oliver power is all but gone as he will likely be given the death sentence primarily as a result of Wood's testimony. Both McKinley and Dewayne Durham, the leader of the competing drug dealing faction, are young men who lead even younger men in running a ruthless drug business in the southeast area of Washington. Pelecanos presents these men, and their assistants, in realistic ways that shows their humanity, fears, as well as their apparent unavoidable tendency to violence.
This next excerpt shows the fears, determinations and friendship of Allante "Lil' J" Jones and Jerome "Nutjob" Long, two of Durham's men as they prepare for battle against the competition:
"Go on, then," said Jones. "You gonna do it, do it now, cause now's the time."
"Just walk right up to that car and fire inside it. Head shots if you can. You got five in that motherf*cker, right?"
Five's all I need, thought Long, intending to say it, wanting to be loose and cool, but unable to because his mouth was so dry. It was like those dreams he had sometimes, when he'd be tryin' to speak and couldn't get his lips unglued.
"Go ahead, Nut," said Jones, his voice gentle. "I'll pick you up there."
"Lil' J," said Long.
"You don't have to say nothin'. You know I got your back."
Long got out of the car and closed his door without force. His legs were weak as he crossed the street. He held the blue revolver tight against his leg and he made it to the side of the market where he flattened his back against the brick wall. He looked back at his friend for a moment, then pushed away from the wall. He turned the corner and stepped off the sidewalk. He walked towards the Nissan idling along the curb.
A key witness that Strange works with is Devra Stokes, a former girlfriend of Philip Wood. Stokes is a strong, independent woman with a young son that she is attempting to protect from the darker sides of the DC area. Strange befriends her and her son as he attempts to collect potentially valuable information from her that could either refute or damage the credibility of Phillip Wood's testimony. Strange relationship with Stokes becomes critical after Wood's friends attempt to pressure Stokes to not provide testimony.
In a separate investigation, Strange's partner, Terry Quinn works for Sue Tracy, his girlfriend and partner of a firm that finds and returns teenage runaways to their parents. As in previous books in the series, Quinn struggles to keep his anger under control while conducting these investigations. He becomes easily frustrated with the lack of cooperation of the several African-American teenagers who he feels can help him.
Fans of Pelecanos' early works will be interested to find the return of Nick Stefanos, who Strange and Quinn hire to conduct some investigations in the southeast Washington area. Nick appears to connect with Strange very well and although Quinn and Stefanos have a little difficulty, they clearly do respect each other.
As typical of Pelecanos, especially in the two previous books in the Strange/Quinn series, Right as Rain and Hell to Pay, the reader is placed in and experiences the violent and depressing portions of an inner city. Because Pelecanos writes so well, this can be a bit difficult to read at times. My mother read Right as Rain at my request and she had difficulty getting through these scenes. She became very nervous and her heart rate quickened to the point that she had to put the book down. Although she finished it, she probably won't read another as she really doesn't want to "visit" these parts of Washington D.C.
Pelecanos is a great writer and this is another great book by him. Be ready though for realistic, tense depressing situations with the occasional lighter moments.
- Amazon readers rating: from 31 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Soul Circus at MostlyFiction.com(back to top)
"Hell to Pay"
(reviewed by Judi Clark FEB 14, 2004)
When Derek Strange makes his first appearance in this novel, he is coming out of a Chinatown massage parlor just as Janine, his office manager and girlfriend, beeps him. When he rationalizes that he loves Janine, but that "love and sex" and "just sex" are two entirely different things, my first thoughts are "what a jerk." That coupled with the events in the first chapter and I'm wondering what have I got myself into here? But I continue reading, perhaps for no other reason than there is something very appealing about the rhythm of the conversations; take, for example, this one:
"What's goin on, big man?"
"It's all good," said Strange. "How about you?"
"Same old soup, just reheated."
"Bennett workin' today?"
"I don't know about workin'. But he's in there."
It doesn't take long for me to figure out that it is Pelecanos' intention to have us question Derek Strange's visit to Chinatown, especially in light of some of the cases that are coming his way. I also realize how much I am really enjoying the novel. Pelecanos writes about the gritty side of the nation's capitol; those neighborhoods ignored by the federal government types and tourists alike; where racism, violence, and drugs are a part of everyday life. His style is to stick us smack in the middle showing us the underbelly, but then turning around and showing us that good families still call this home.
Derek Strange is a middle-aged black man, an ex-cop who turned private investigator with his own business. He has a white partner, Terry Quinn, who is another ex-cop, but is newer to the private investigation business. (Right as Rain tells the full story of how they hook up.) The reason Janine beeped Derek is to tell him to meet up with two female investigators, who have been trying to reach him. These women are also ex-cops and another "salt and pepper" team who are "aligned with some do-goodnik, pro-prosti organization." Using grant money, their job is to retrieve young runaways who have turned to prostitution; as they say, the only crime in which "the perp is the victim." The women have too much work to do and want to hire Derek for a case.
So Derek takes up the offer; it's an easy one that he raps up in a night. While on surveillance he realizes that the women gave him this job to see how he'd react; the abusive john he's videotaped is a cop. But, Derek has no moral ambiguity when it comes to a cop using his power in the wrong way. Convinced he's right for the job, they then hire him to find a fourteen-year-old white girl who is a runaway from the suburbs and assumed to be hooking in the city. Derek turns the case over to Terry.
Early evenings, Derek and Terry coach a PeeWee football team. The same one that Digger tells Garfield Potter about in the opening chapter as to where Potter might find Lorenze Wilder who owes Potter $100. Lorenze's nephew plays on the Peewee team. Mind you, Digger does warn Potter not to mess with Lorenze Wilder's sister or kid; we learn later what's behind this advice. So when the 9-year old kid becomes one more victim of violence, Derek decides to investigate on his own. What comes out of Terry and Derek's parallel investigations are the results of a unending cycle of poverty and revenge; adding to the fray are Terry and Derek - each battling with their own ideas of justice.
If noir fiction is about hard-boiled cynical characters and bleak sleazy settings, well this novel is about as good as it gets; too bad its talking about a real place. In these neighborhoods, racism begets racism just as revenge instigates an unending cycle of retaliation. If nothing else, Hell to Pay sheds a bit of reality on how much care is required and still how hard it is to get these kids out from under their neighborhoods (and sometimes their own families), to help them lead a different life than what's offered around them. After Peewee practice, Derek is ever vigilant, making sure each child is safely back in his home as night falls. Even at that, these kids live in fear and learn posturing just to survive on a daily basis:
"Lamar lay back on the bed. He could still feel his heart beating hard beneath his white T-shirt. He'd done right, not giving up anything to those boys who'd tried to sweat him from the open windows of the car, because whatever they wanted with Joe Wilder's mother; it was no good. But it was hard to keep doing right. Hard to have to walk a certain way, talk a certain way, keep up that shell all the time out here, when sometimes all you wanted to do was be young and have fun. Relax."
I'd do this novel wrong if I didn't mention the use of music throughout. Everyone is always playing some kind of tune. It's like it is never quiet in these neighborhoods. For the most part, I didn't know the majority of the musical references, but I assume much to be current rap. I had better luck recognizing some of the tunes that Derek or Terry listened to, however, there is a lot of R&B (or whatever) that I didn't recognize. I wish the book came with a sound track. From what I read, music is a Pelecanos trademark, so perhaps Pelecanos should follow Laura Esquivel's example and include a music CD with his novels, the way she does with The Law of Love. But, in a sense, not knowing the music works for me. It's one more way of saying that I'm not part of the world depicted in this novel. I might be able to believe that I have a better understanding from having read the novel, but it's a foreign world to me just the same.
I've said it before and I'll say it again, the best reward for doing this Web site is discovering new writers that I might have otherwise missed. This is my first Pelecanos' novel, but not my last. There's something about this novel that just stays with me, perhaps the Washington Post says it the best, "His books will burn into your brain like no others." In the end, my only regret in reading Hell to Pay is that I didn't read Right as Rain first.
- Amazon readers rating: from 48 reviews
Read an excerpt of Hell to Pay at MostlyFiction.com
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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
- Crescent blues.com: Hard-boiled buddies (1999)
- Thrilling Detective on Derek Strange and Terry Quinn
- WashingtonPost.com review of Right as Rain
- MostlyFiction.com review of Nick's Trip
- MostlyFiction.com review of The Night Gardener
- MostlyFiction.com review of Drama City
- MostlyFiction.com other 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.