Tuesday, 6 December 2011

GEORGE PELECANOS' CUT

When I reviewed The Way Home in 2009 (you can link to it here), I suggested that, since so much of his work falls into the series framework, it might be grouped with George Pelecanos' previous two novels, The Night Gardener and The Turnaround, into a trilogy I dubbed 'Fathers and Sons'. His new novel, The Cut, in one sense might be considered the fourth book in what would then become a quartet, but it also marks a departure in style from the trilogy which precedes it, and also introduces a character who seems poised to begin a series of novels all his own. Spero Lucas does the investigating that gets a major drug dealer's nephew off a stolen car/traffic accident beef, and winds up working for the dealer to trace a leak in his marijuana supply chain. Things get complicated from there, and there's an interesting twist in the end, which helps confirm Spero's lone-wolf status.

In one sense, Spero's story continues the concerns of the 'Fathers and Sons' trilogy, with family values, in the old-fashioned, core sense of that phrase, being at their centre. Lucas is one of four children, two natural, two adopted, raised by hard-working Greek parents. He and his brother Leo are the adopted ones, and Leo is black. Of the two older children, one is a successful lawyer and the other is a ne'er do well; neither has much to do with their widowed mother. Leo is a teacher, Spero a war-hero home from Iraq, working as a casual investigator for a criminal defense attorney. The Cut features sub-plots; one of Leo's students is a witness to one of the central crimes, and is a bright boy in need of a father figure; a crooked cop turns out to have a criminal father of the worst sort—the contrasts between nature and nurture are never sharper than when Pelecanos approaches them through the prism of crime.

But looked at from another angle, The Cut does a couple of things differently from most of his previous fiction. There is a feeling in the way the book is structured around Spero that reminded me of Robert B Parker's fiction, how quickly he constructs a scene and the characters within it, and then moves on. Like so many of Parker's novels, this one also moves very quickly toward one big action scene, a structure not unlike the westerns which Pelecanos admires and which have been reflected before in his work.

The other new thing is Spero himself, who, unlikely as it seems, reminds me of John D MacDonald's Travis McGee, the 'salvage consultant'. That's the nature of Spero's work for the defense attorney. Like McGee, he possesses superior and well-honed skills that make him more formidable than he might seem (and like McGee's, those skills were acquired in the military). But most striking is Spero's attitude toward the opposite sex: though firmly on the side of families and raising children properly, he is, like McGee, a confirmed bachelor and unwilling (or unable) to commit to a relationship—though he is a lot of fun even without that. Being the 21st century, this attitude runs afoul of one of the women in the story, but being McGee-like that is, in effect, her problem. Admittedly, it has been a long time since I read a Travis McGee, but I was hearing definite echoes of his pop psychology in the narrative.

This is not meant to deflate the impact of this book. There is no one writing crime fiction who deals more realistically or more tellingly with the situation of working class people in American cities, and the degradation of life within those cities caused by the disappearance of jobs and the downscaling of education as a government priority for those people. He makes the problem personal, and that works. In The Cut, he has adapted those concerns to a faster-paced, more hero-centered story. If it's Parker and MacDonald with a conscience and a soul, that is not a bad thing to be.

The Cut by George Pelecanos
Orion Books, £12.99 ISBN 9781409114567