Sunday, December 11, 2011

40%

Readers here know that I am a reader of detective fiction, but you might not know that I feel some small obligation to you to not plunk you down in the middle of a series. Starting at the beginning is important to me, so when I can combine the beginning with an audio version, I'm inclined to give it my ears. Add Dion Graham to the mix and it's an easy one to add to the listening queue. Hence, The Cut by George Pelecanos.

Spero Lucas works as an unlicensed investigator for a solo practice lawyer representing mostly small-time criminal defendants. He has a side business recovering lost or stolen items for a straight cut of 40%. He likes outdoor sports (biking, kayaking), women, food, music that I've mostly never heard of, books that I have heard of, and his working-class neighborhood in northeast (?) Washington, DC (all described with loving detail).

Spero, who was adopted into a Greek-American family, lives near his widowed mother and beloved older brother, Leo. Leo is African American and Spero is white. (I knew this because I'd listened to a short story featuring Spero's family before listening to The Cut, but I really liked how we learn about characters' race not through description, but how other characters react to them.) Spero was a Marine in Iraq, and his work feels a little like he doesn't really know what to do with himself after the purpose and mission he felt while serving.

He takes a recovery job from one of his employer's defendants, a marijuana dealer for whom a few shipments have gone astray. Pursuing the thefts leads to the assassination of the dealer's two young assistants, and to a criminal enterprise led by a former rogue cop. A promising student of Spero's brother gets caught up in the middle. Spero is driven not so much by right and wrong, but his sense of personal justice. And when he needs to kill, he views his act dispassionately, as necessary -- a view honed by his experiences in Fallujah.

While I appreciate Pelecanos' writing -- which has an urban rhythm and a righteousness that is compelling -- I find the details not particularly interesting. The name dropping -- clothes, cars, musicians, and yes, even writers -- feels pretentious to me, and it never ceased. The villains are so obviously, well villainous that their comeuppance is not satisfying. Even the setting -- which is the strongest part of the novel, as the affection the author feels for the non-governmental settings of DC is palpable -- became mired down in such detail that I began tuning out.

I don't wish to pile on, but I found the characters a little cardboard-y as well. In Chosen, the short story of Spero's origins -- how he was adopted and grew up in the Lucas family -- Spero's parents come across as saints in their color-blindness, not real people at all. Saintliness, sexiness, intensity, innocence -- all of Pelecanos' characters just seem so one dimensional. Like the flawed hero he is, Spero is an interesting character, but he's surrounded by types.

The question is, do these flaws show up in the detective fiction that I do like and I just don't see them because I'm enjoying the puzzle? Maybe I need the puzzle. I get that in real life most crimes are not committed by highly intelligent people adept at disguising their involvement, but I don't read detective fiction for reality. After two Pelecanos novels, I think I know that the "reality" of hard-boiled fiction (which isn't real either) -- the clothing labels, the music, and the no-question-about-it bad guys -- isn't my cup of tea. I'm just going to have to get my Dion fix elsewhere.

I liked Graham here (face it, I like Graham). He does a fine job channeling Spero's conflicts -- warrior, loner, lover, brother, grieving son. The resonant softness, almost whisper, of his delivery works well with Pelecanos' street rhythms, giving the whole narrative a sense of impending calamity. He livens up a few of the other characters with some vocal interest -- I enjoyed his portrayal of Spero's two war buddies, and the two young marijuana dealers who meet an unpleasant end.

And, I gotta say (with a blush) ... there's a scene early in the novel when Spero is making love with one of his women and, well ... Graham delivered a character's moment of pleasure authentically. And that's all I've got to say about that!

[Spero's 'hood is NE DC. The picture of the 800 block of H Street, NE was taken by AgnosticPreachersKid and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. Also from the Commons, Jen's photo of blusher and brush.]

The Cut and Chosen by George Pelecanos
Narrated by Dion Graham
Hachette Audio, 2011. 7:32 (The Cut) and 0:45 (Chosen)

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