If you happen across George Pelecanos’s novels on the mystery racks, you’ll probably figure him for testosterone injection #300, another interchangeable James W. Hall/Ridley Pearson local colorist dog-paddling through Carl Hiaasen’s backwash. That’s not exactly wrong—Pelecanos does sex and snappy patter as well as the next he-man—but it misses his hipster’s soul, his feel for community coalescence and collapse, and most of all his sensitivity to pop culture as the pulse of humanity. (Given the almost tic-like iteration of the music his characters listen to, all of Pelecanos’s novels should come with soundtracks.) Even his villains get a groove on: In his latest, Shame the Devil, assistant bad guy Roman Otis spends his downtime hanging in karaoke bars, waving his hands while he croons soul classics. “He thought of it as a kind of punctuation, what he liked to call his ‘hand expressions.’ This would have been his signature as a performer had his life gone the other way. But it hadn’t.”
It’s no accident that Spike Lee is adapting Pelecanos’s masterwork so far, the 1997 blaxploitation novel King Suckerman; Lee must have recognized a kindred spirit in this author’s organic sense of street politics. Alone among similarly themed contemporary works that pile adventure upon exploit, Pelecanos’s eight Washington, D.C., novels have built up an epic half-century portrait of how black and Greek worlds in Chocolate City swelled into majesty and then went suddenly to seed.
Yet Pelecanos isn’t given to crypto-racist nostalgia in which “our [white] world” ended when “we” headed for the burbs. He’s just as interested in how black and white clocks move differently, how one race’s bad times can be the other’s fond memories. “The house parties we’d have in the basements, with those blue lights, dancing with the young ladies to the Motown sound. The concerts at the Howard, back in the early sixties? . . . Yeah, I knew how to have fun,” reminisces a black former police officer in Shame, now angrily immured behind security fences in a bad neighborhood. “But the city changed. . . . You can’t stop it from reaching you.”
James Ellroy without the lip-smacking s/m, Walter Mosley minus the didacticism, Pelecanos takes racial brotherhood as a given among both heroes and heels. The Sweet Forever, his 1998 novel, proffered the NCAA-tournament feats of local hero Len Bias, and his OD three days after being drafted by the Celtics, as a leitmotiv for the hellish descent into crack that would afflict black and white Washingtonians equally. But with Shame, Pelecanos seems less convinced of gunplay’s intrinsic heroism and more worried about blowback. Beginning with a robbery that leaves six dead, including a small boy flattened by the getaway car, he devotes the entire middle of the novel to wide-angle tracking shots of the aftermath of tragedy. Huddling in a court-funded support group, the victims’ loved ones—fathers, friends, and wives; black and white—all collapse inward on loss. Swaggering Thomas Wilson, who lost his best friend, admits to himself that grief has frozen him in place: “He felt far away from what was hip and new. He favored the music that he had come up with. He dressed like 1989. He still wore his hair in that same tired fade.”
Now, two and a half years later, head bad guy Frank Farrow, Roman Otis’s partner (perhaps the book’s least realistic touch, a booga-booga baddie with scary eyes and snarly mannerisms that would challenge Christopher Walken), decides to come out of hiding and kill the cop who shot his brother. Along the way, Farrow inadvertently alerts Dimitri Karras, a recurring Pelecanos character from several novels (and the father of the boy killed by the getaway car), to his presence. Slowly and adroitly—Pelecanos’s crosscuts among the participants seduce us with anticipation of a Leone-style bloodbath but also warn of its consequence—the novel builds to a climactic showdown between Farrow and Karras, who has subtracted himself from human interaction after his son’s death. By taking his time, by working seemingly tangential subplots smoothly into the main story, Pelecanos finds an extra layer of resonance: Just as personal rot can map urban decay, so can individual recovery augur the coming of brighter times for whole communities. When Karras finds closure, three years after the robbery gashed him open, it’s hard not to think that for D.C. itself, redemption is, if not around the corner, at least in the neighborhood.
A little less distanced from macho than you might hope, this novel still dares to escape the genre straitjacket and defer its violence to just before the point of endurance. It’s a thriller with an ethnic accent, brains, balls, and everything in between.